New York GOP Has Eyes On Gillibrand House Seat : It's All Politics Republicans, on the defensive in recent years, hope to win back the New York congressional seat given up by now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
NPR logo New York GOP Has Eyes On Gillibrand House Seat

New York GOP Has Eyes On Gillibrand House Seat

Part of the 2006 nightmare for the Republican Party, in which they lost 30 seats in the House, came in New York's 20th District. A wealthy first-time candidate, Democratic attorney Kirsten Gillibrand, proved to be a superb campaigner in a race that started out as a long shot, at best. But her Republican opponent, Rep. John Sweeney, was connected to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. He made an ill-advised visit to a college fraternity party. And then, one week before the election, the Albany Times Union reported that Sweeney's wife called the police in 2005 to report that the congressman had hit her. That combination, added to the sour GOP atmosphere, resulted in a 53-47 percent Gillibrand victory.

It was the first time in decades the district elected a Democrat.

Republicans made a determined, and expensive, bid to regain the seat in 2008, but their candidate, Sandy Treadwell, received only 38 percent of the vote. Part of the reason is that Gillibrand, with tons of money as well, had arrived at positions popular in this conservative, mostly rural district -- such as on guns and immigration.

Last month, Gillibrand was named to fill the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That leaves her own House seat vacant, and Republicans desperately want to win it back.

Their nominee is Jim Tedisco, the minority leader in the state Assembly the past four years. He won over GOP leaders who were also looking at other candidates, such as Treadwell and John Faso, who got clobbered as the party's gubernatorial nominee in 2006. Republicans are very high on Tedisco's chances.

Democrats have come up with Scott Murphy, a venture capitalist who has never run for office before, has been involved in politics in his home state of Missouri -- and who, according to Politico's Josh Kraushaar, failed to pay "thousands of dollars in taxes on a start-up computer software company he owned more than a decade ago." In the wake of l'affaires Geithner and Daschle, not to mention allegations about House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, Republicans feel they have a winning issue.

A Public Opinion Strategies poll conducted for Tedisco had him leading Murphy 50-29 percent. That may be an accurate snapshot of where the race stands now. But New York Gov. David Paterson (D) has yet to announce the date of a special election, and Republicans contend that the delay is deliberate, to give Murphy more time to build up some name identification. Many observers think the election will be in March or April.

Trivial pursuit. The last time the Republicans captured a Democratic House seat in New York was in 2000. Michael Forbes, first elected in 1994 as a Republican, had grown disenchanted with the GOP and switched to the Democratic Party. But Forbes, a conservative, never considered that Democrats were not madly in love with him either; he promptly lost the Dem primary in 2000, and Republican Felix Grucci won the seat -- which he held for all of one term. The last time a New York congressman elected as a Democrat was unseated by a Republican was in 1994, when Forbes ousted George Hochbrueckner. After the '94 elections, there were 14 Republicans in the New York House delegation. Today there are three.

Changing stripes? An interesting article in today's New York Times by David Halbfinger, talking to residents of the 20th CD, many of whom are unhappy with what they perceive as ideological shifts by Gillibrand since she was appointed to the Senate.

Many are taking it as an abandonment of the principles that persuaded them to support a Democrat in this predominantly Republican area.

"I don't think it's right when you say one thing and do something else," said Michelle Boyea, 44, as she sat in her car after running errands around town. If you have a position, and this is what you feel, why would you change it just because you got a new job?" ...

Ms. Gillibrand has softened some of her positions in the weeks since her appointment. She declared her support for gay marriage, not merely civil unions. She assured Latinos and Asians in New York City that she would work to enact a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. And she let Senator Charles E. Schumer, who had enthusiastically supported her selection, reassure downstate voters that she would "evolve" on gun control, too.

To which Ms. Boyea, one of many Republicans here who voted for Ms. Gillibrand in November, offered this rebuke: "I don't believe you should say things just to make yourself sound better. Don't follow. If you're going to be a leader, then lead."

NOTE: The Times article was preceded by five days by a similar piece by North County Public Radio's David Sommerstein on the "evolving" Gillibrand.

Daddy Warbucks. A question from reader Joe Ronan of Pleasanton, Calif.:

I noticed [in a Jan. 23 Junkie posting] the name of Joe Resnick in the N.Y. Democratic Senate primary in 1968. Isn't that Gillibrand's father?

No. Resnick was a Democratic congressman from Ellenville, N.Y., who was a staunch Johnson/Humphrey supporter and whose bid for the Democratic Senate nomination in '68 was best-known for its attacks on Sen. Robert Kennedy and his anti-Vietnam War pronouncements. Resnick, a multimillionaire, was not going to win the primary anyway, but once RFK was assassinated several weeks before the primary, Resnick was finished.

Gillibrand's father is Douglas Rutnik, a lobbyist who is close with Republicans, such as former Gov. George Pataki and former Sen. Al D'Amato. Gillibrand herself was once a college intern in D'Amato's office -- which explains why he was so visible at the event in which Gov. Paterson named her to the Senate seat. (For the record, D'Amato has been cozying up to Democrats in the state, notably Paterson himself. Hmm, I wonder if that's a coincidence. A potential Paterson opponent next year is former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a longtime D'Amato foe.)