NY-22 Minute: Examining Prospects for a Democratic Wave By Luke Perry
Democratic enthusiasm about the 2018 midterm is running high after Doug Jones improbably was elected the first Democratic Senator from Alabama since 1992. Winning the heavily conservative state “was the latest example in a string of elections this year that Democratic leaders think represent a growing backlash against President Trump and a potential building wave for 2018.”
I asked Dr. Philip Klinkner, The James A. Sherman Professor of Government at Hamilton College, how this election cycle compares to 2006, the last House Democratic wave election, which elected the last Congressional Democrat from Utica, Michael Arcuri.
Klinkner explained that:
“Flipping a traditionally Republican seat to a Democrat or vice versa is like a surfer riding a wave.
First, you need to have a skilled surfer, or in this case a strong candidate. In 2006, Mike Arcuri had been in elected office for over a decade and was well known to lots of voters in the district.
Second, you need a surfboard to ride, otherwise known as a good campaign. Arcuri assembled a strong team of both locals and people new to the district.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need a strong wave. Even the best surfer riding the best board can't make it to shore without a wave. In 2006 that wave came about because of George W. Bush was extremely unpopular. That created the opportunity that Arcuri and his campaign were able to ride to victory.”
Similar to Arcuri, Anthony Brindisi has over a decade of electoral experience and is well known to voters in Utica and the surrounding area. This will help him in Oneida County, but his name recognition remains limited elsewhere.
Recent polling found that 65 percent of constituents didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion. Brindisi spent the last six months traveling the district to expand his name recognition and has begun enhancing his campaign website, providing more information about his platform.
His campaign team is still taking shape, so it’s too soon to tell how Brindisi measures up on Klinkner's second point. Ellen Foster, Brindisi’s campaign manager, is a Colgate University alum, with professional experience in central New York Congressional campaigns. She is familiar with the area and relevant political dynamics.
Klinkner’s third point has received much attention in recent days as a result of the outcome in Alabama. Alabama and NY-22 are inherently different, but share the dynamic of a Democratic candidate being competitive within a predominately Republican electorate.
Trump won Alabama by 28 points with 62 percent of the vote. Tuesday’s exit polls found Alabama voters split (48 percent to 48 percent) over whether they approve of the job President Trump is doing. Allegations of sexual assault toward Roy Moore were not a major factor for most voters.
In 2016 Trump won three NY-22 counties with at least a 20 point advantage. Oneida County (+20), which is completely within the district, as well as Tioga County (+26) and Oswego County (+22), which are partially in the district.
Upstate New Yorkers are more critical of President Trump than Alabamians. 59 percent believe President Trump is doing a “poor” job, though upstate Republicans are divided. 52 percent describe his job performance as “fair” or “poor,” 48 percent as “excellent” or “good." These numbers are not reassuring for upstate House incumbents.
In Alabama, diminished presidential approval ratings correlated with moderates voting overwhelmingly Democratic as Jones won 74 percent of this group. This is encouraging for Democrats, but a hard benchmark for other candidates to meet. The path to victory in NY-22 begins with Oneida County. Widespread appeal with moderate Republicans will be essential to Brindisi flipping the county and mounting a successful challenge to Claudia Tenney.
As a result, Representative Tenney and the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) have consistently questioned whether Brindisi is moderate, dating back to the launch of Brindisi’s campaign, when Tenney claimed “he pretends to be a moderate when it benefits him.” The NRCC recently called Brindisi a “socialist,” and sought to connect him with Governor Cuomo, who is unpopular upstate.
This points to a major internal dynamic of the campaign thus far. Tenney seeks to rally her base of Trump supporters and portray Brindisi as too liberal for the district. Brindisi seeks to transform grassroots activism into electoral mobilization, while courting crossover support from moderate Republicans disillusioned with Trump's style and leadership.
The results in Alabama do not provide a universally replicable model that will result in a Democratic wave, but the outcome did illuminate possibilities of how swells could form under the right circumstances.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.
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