Spoiler Alert in This Unpredictable New York House Race

Martin Babinec currently has far more support than the usual third-party contender.

Martin Babinec
Photo courtesy of Friends of Martin Babinec
Sept. 14, 2016, 8 p.m.

A wealthy busi­ness­man run­ning a third-party cam­paign that has grabbed a fifth of the vote in re­cent polls is cre­at­ing an in­creas­ingly un­pre­dict­able race in a top House battle­ground dis­trict in cent­ral New York.

Few strategists say they be­lieve Mar­tin Babinec cur­rently has a vi­able path to vic­tory in his bid to re­place re­tir­ing Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Richard Hanna. But his cam­paign has gained im­press­ive trac­tion and has the po­ten­tial to play spoil­er to either his Demo­crat­ic or Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent—it’s just not yet clear which one.

After in­vest­ing $1 mil­lion in his cam­paign, Babinec in­und­ated the air­waves last month with ads in­tro­du­cing him­self simply as a can­did­ate who will cre­ate jobs in the re­gion. It’s that kind of ideo­lo­gic­al am­bi­gu­ity that has both parties ra­cing to paint him as a li­ab­il­ity to the oth­er in the 22nd dis­trict, which split its votes al­most evenly between the two pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates in 2008 and 2012.

“He’s a com­plete un­known,” said Broome County GOP Chair­man Bi­joy Datta, who noted some con­cern that Babinec could pull from the Re­pub­lic­an base. “I think people are con­fused about who he is and what he stands for. All they see are kind of feel-good ads on tele­vi­sion.”

In one of a few New York dis­tricts tar­geted by na­tion­al Demo­crats, the race pits Babinec against loc­al le­gis­lat­or Kim My­ers, a mod­er­ate Demo­crat and heir­ess to the Dick’s Sport­ing Goods em­pire, and state As­semb­ly­wo­man Claudia Ten­ney, a Re­pub­lic­an with tea-party sup­port and a pen­chant for per­son­al at­tacks.

Each has strong back­ing from their na­tion­al party’s House cam­paign arms, which both de­scribe the third-party can­did­ate as an as­set.

In a press con­fer­ence last week, Rep. Greg Walden, chair­man of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, high­lighted Babinec’s “ma­jor con­tri­bu­tions to Hil­lary Clin­ton” as a reas­on why he would pull voters from the Left. Mean­while, the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee in­sists Babinec will split the GOP vote with Ten­ney, cit­ing his pledge to caucus with House Re­pub­lic­ans.

Babinec had a mono­poly on the air­waves in Au­gust. While his spots prom­ised to cre­ate con­di­tions for en­tre­pren­eur­ship to flour­ish, they did little to clear up where he falls on the polit­ic­al spec­trum.

In an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al, Babinec de­scribed him­self as fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive and a pro­ponent of lower taxes and smal­ler gov­ern­ment. He will be run­ning on the Re­form and Up­state Jobs bal­lot lines, and he said he isn’t wor­ried about how his op­pon­ents try to brand him.

“The jobs mes­sage and what I stand for as an in­de­pend­ent can­did­ate is be­ing em­braced by a broad spec­trum,” Babinec said. “It’s not about try­ing to fit in­to a tight ideo­lo­gic­al box.”

He said his rise in re­cent polling is proof he is more than a spoil­er. Babinec, who foun­ded a non­profit that con­nects start-up com­pan­ies and en­tre­pren­eurs in up­state New York, said he best fits the pro­file of the dis­trict, which has a his­tory of elect­ing mod­er­ate can­did­ates.

That in­cludes Hanna, who over three terms bucked his party on abor­tion, cli­mate change, and same-sex mar­riage. He is cur­rently the only Re­pub­lic­an mem­ber of Con­gress to pledge his vote to Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Three polls re­leased this month by the NR­CC, the DCCC, and Babinec’s cam­paign showed him grabbing at least 20 per­cent of the vote and pulling sup­port from both parties.

Si­ena Re­search In­sti­tute, which con­ducts in­de­pend­ent polling in New York, ex­pects to sur­vey the dis­trict in Septem­ber.

Some loc­al Re­pub­lic­ans pre­dicted Babinec was more likely to splinter the GOP vote be­cause Ten­ney was too con­ser­vat­ive for the mod­er­ate-lean­ing dis­trict.

Ten­ney wasn’t na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans’ pre­ferred can­did­ate, and Hanna, who battled Ten­ney in a con­ten­tious 2014 primary, has said he won’t back the as­semb­ly­wo­man and she can’t win. Hanna has met with My­ers and Babinec, but has not made any de­cision on an en­dorse­ment.

The Ten­ney cam­paign said it isn’t wor­ried about los­ing mod­er­ate voters to Babinec but doesn’t cur­rently have plans to go neg­at­ive against him.

“He’s ac­tu­ally a lib­er­al Demo­crat just like Kim My­ers, and Claudia’s run­ning against two people who are one and the same,” Ten­ney spokes­wo­man Han­nah An­drews said.

The race is set to be one of the more ex­pens­ive this cycle. The Oneida In­di­an Na­tion, one of the re­gion’s largest em­ploy­ers through its casino busi­ness, dropped nearly $600,000 in the primary to op­pose Ten­ney, who last year called its CEO, Ray Hal­brit­ter, “Spray Tan Ray.” The group hasn’t in­dic­ated wheth­er it will spend in the gen­er­al elec­tion.

Both cam­paign com­mit­tees will likely in­vest heav­ily, and Babinec is no longer the only one on the air. House Ma­jor­ity PAC re­served $1.1 mil­lion in TV time in the dis­trict and re­leased its first spot last week, which slammed Ten­ney for missed votes in the state le­gis­lature. The NR­CC countered with an at­tack ad over tax in­creases My­ers sup­por­ted while serving on a loc­al school board. The My­ers cam­paign also went on the air this month.

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