Four tea party-backed House candidates in New York used sharp criticism of President Obama to secure election in 2010. Two years later, his mere presence on the ballot may jeopardize their prospects.
Democrats believe New York is prime turf to take back seats and slice into the GOP’s majority in the House of Representatives. The four freshmen — Ann Marie Buerkle, Nan Hayworth, Chris Gibson and Michael Grimm — are being targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red-to-Blue” campaign. And their challengers are all employing similar strategies by attacking them for a pair of conservative House votes and hoping Obama’s popularity in the state will result in more voters casting a ballot for Democrats this year.
Buerkle may be the most vulnerable of the four. She is running against former Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei in New York’s newly redrawn 24th District in the central part of the state. Buerkle upset Maffei two years ago in the old 25th District behind endorsements from Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney. Various polls have shown the race extremely tight, including a recent poll from Siena Research Institute that showed the race deadlocked.
The same poll also showed Obama trouncing Romney in the district, 55 percent to 36 percent. That margin lines up with New York’s status as one of the most Obama-friendly states on the electoral map. Siena pollster Steven Greenberg said Obama’s huge lead in the district is an obvious opening for the challenger.
“If I were in the Maffei campaign, I would carry a cardboard cutout of Barack Obama at every appearance,” Greenberg told TPM. “I would give voters a reason to support Maffei. I’d say, give Barack Obama a partner in Washington.”
In addition, Maffei and his Democratic counterparts are trying to paint their rivals as too extreme for New York by pointing to two House votes in which all four Republicans voted the same way. One of those votes was to pass the budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), notable for its provision to turn Medicare into a voucher program. The other was to outlaw federal funding for abortions except in cases of “forcible rape.”
Greenberg said women’s health issues represent a problematic area for Republicans throughout New York. In Siena’s polling of seven congressional districts throughout the state, voters overwhelmingly backed Democrats on issues related to contraception and abortion.
“That is the one issue across the board that jumps out as one where voters are clearly on the Demcoratic side,” Greenberg said.
David Ray, campaign manager for Buerkle, argued that the Democratic challenger simply isn’t popular with voters in the 24th, pointing to the gap in support between Obama and Maffei shown in the Siena poll (although the poll did show Maffei’s favorability rating above water.)
“Don’t you think that it’s just a little bit strange that Obama’s popularity is so high and this race is tied?” Ray told TPM. “If Obama is winning this district by 19 points like [the Siena poll] is suggesting, then why is our opponent only tied?”
In the 18th district, nestled in the southeastern corner of the state, Rep. Nan Hayworth has pushed back against the charges of extremism from her Democratic opponent, Sean Patrick Maloney, a former aide to both former President Bill Clinton and former New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer.
Hayworth told the New York Times earlier this month the attack was a “tone-deaf and unsupportable argument.” But Maloney’s campaign clearly believes that Hayworth’s support of Ryan’s budget is a liability in the district.
“[Hayworth] has really doubled down on the Ryan budget,” Evangeline George, a Maloney spokesperson, told TPM. “She’s called Ryan a friend, a mentor. She’s not backing down from that vote at all.”
That approach may help Maloney shore up his Democratic base. A poll from Siena last month indicated that Republicans are backing Hayworth more strongly than Democrats are supporting Maloney. But Maloney may benefit from the decision of Working Families Party candidate Larry Weissman to drop out of the race. The WFP has since endorsed Maloney, whose campaign suggested that Weissman was siphoning votes from the Democrat in the Siena poll. With Weissman out of the equation, an internal poll released by the Maloney campaign this month showed him trailing Hayworth by only 2 in a head-to-head match-up.
In the 19th District in the Hudson Valley, Democrats may be facing one of their biggest challenges. A Siena poll last month showed Rep. Chris Gibson leading Democratic challenger Julian Schreibman, a former attorney for the Central Intelligence Agency, by 16 points even though the same poll also showed Obama leading by 4 in the district. But a pair of partisan polls released last week both showed Gibson out in front, but by very different margins. One that was commissioned by the Schreibman campaign showed the Democratic challenger down only 2, while the other was conducted by a Republican pollster and showed Gibson with an 11-point advantage.
Nevertheless, Gibson has been helped by an avalanche of outside spending on his behalf. The Times reported that almost $2 million has flooded the district from the national party and other GOP-aligned groups, such as Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies. In fact, Crossroads dropped nearly a half-million dollars late last month on an ad attacking Schreibman.
But like Maffei, Schreibman believes his opponent’s tea party credentials as well as his positions on women’s health and ideological harmony with Ryan will give voters pause.
“The congressman’s priorities have been the tea party agenda, defunding Planned Parenthood, and supporting the Paul Ryan agenda,” Schreibman told TPM. “When you see that voters are rejecting Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and we’re running against a guy who supported the Ryan agenda and embraced Mitt Romney, we’re confident that voters will reject that at the congressional level as well.”
Finally, in the 11th District — encompassing both Brooklyn and Staten Island — Rep. Michael Grimm is looking to overcome what has been a tumultuous first term in Congress to win re-election. Members of his 2010 campaign team have been questioned by the feds over the lawmaker’s fundraising efforts. In August, the FBI probed Grimm for failing to file the necessary paperwork associated with a 2011 trip to Cyprus.
But Siena’s poll last month showed Grimm besting his Democratic opponent, Mark Murphy. Greenberg, the pollster, said while the district has a Democratic flavor, voters there aren’t exactly Upper West Side liberals.
“These are moderate-to-conservative Reagan Democrats,” Greenberg said. “They’re the type of Democrats who helped Rudy Giuliani.”
Siena’s poll showed Grimm earning the support of 31 percent of Democrats in the district, but it also showed Obama up by 4 points, an indication that Murphy may have room to grow.
The Democrats have history behind them, too, Greenberg said. Democratic turnout in New York has traditionally been higher in presidential election years while Republicans have turned out at higher rates during the midterms. Overall turnout in New York will also undoubtedly be larger this year than it was two years ago. A mere 32 percent of the state’s eligible voters participated in the 2010 GOP-dominated midterms, the lowest rate in the nation that year.
Still, Greenberg cautioned that a big turnout from an electorate that overwhelmingly supports Obama may not necessarily translate to support for the party’s candidates in down-ballot races.
“We know there’s a larger fallout in presidential voters, with people who vote top of the ticket but don’t vote down ballot,” Greenberg said. “The key for Democrats, if they want to take advantage of that turnout, is to educate casual voters to stay in there, and stay on the Democratic line on the ballot.”
Tom Kludt is a newswriter for TPM. A former research intern and polling fellow for TPM, he lives and works in New York City. Tom graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Dakota in May of 2010 with a B.A. in Political Science and History. He can be reached at Tom (at) talkingpointsmemo.com.