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.