NY-22 Minute: Tenney's Claims of Unprecedented Productivity Reflect Campaign Dynamics By Luke Perry
Claudia Tenney’s claim she is “probably the most productive” NY-22 representative was fact-checked yesterday by Greg Mason at the Observer-Dispatch, Utica’s 200 year old paper Tenney has referred to as “fake news.”
The comment can be understood as a reflection of the 2018 campaign between Tenney and Anthony Brindisi, particularly Tenney’s standing in the race and her political style.
Polls show that Tenney is behind, which is not typical or ideal for an incumbent. Tenney has taken heat from Democrats and Republicans. National GOP operatives do not want to lose this highly contested seat, while locals are concerned of her potentially negative impact on down ballot Republicans.
Tenney’s recent rhetoric illustrates increased focus on her accomplishments, and those of President Trump, perhaps in an effort to change the public narrative about her candidacy.
A former Tea-Party Republican, Tenney has mirrored President Trump’s policy and style trying to expand her level of support above 50 percent. Tenney won a three-way race in 2016 with 46 percent of the vote.
Martin Babinec voters could make a difference in 2018. Babinec was the third-party, center-right candidate, who received over 12 percent in 2016. He is not running again.
Tenney recently claimed President Trump is “probably the most successful modern presidency.” Her long embrace of Trump has differed from her colleague John Katko (R) in neighboring NY-24, who has adopted a more distanced approach, winning convincingly in 2016 and 2014.
Few constituents are likely to believe either Trump or Tenney have been as successful as Tenney suggests, even Republican supporters. Sherry Boehlert, for instance, is a widely respected former Congressman. Comparing Boehlert’s 24 years of service to Tenney’s 18 months is an inherently lopsided comparison.
Why employ such hyperbolic language? There are three potential reasons.
First, this may energize the Trump/Tenney base in NY-22, particularly rural conservative voters, who dominate several counties in the district. They think Trump and Tenney have been treated unfairly by the media and the left, and likely view such rhetoric as welcome and overdue.
Second, Tenney personally believes nearly all of her media coverage has been critical. Making such bold claims draws increased attention to what she has done in office.
Ironically, Tenney’s combative attacks on the news media probably further inspires reporters to fulfill their government watchdog role. Even Donald Trump, who attacks the news media like few modern presidents have, couples this with a remarkably accessible and personable approach in private. Tenney has not replicated this component of Trump's media style to her detriment.
Third, Tenney’s excessive praise could shift the center of public opinion slightly in her direction by flanking the debate with a radical position in her favor. In other words, these comments may prompt constituents to further consider what Tenney and Trump have done, and perhaps concede it’s more than they get credit for, even if they don’t like or agree with them.
There is potential downside to this approach as well. All elected officeholders seek to claim credit and deflect blame. Most seek to do this in a way that simultaneously displays self-reflection and humility. Hyperbolic self-praise invites fact-checking and risks being disingenuous.
In particular, Tenney’s critics have not taken aim at the volume or veracity of her work. She is not called “lazy” or “absent” from DC lawmaking. Criticisms have largely focused on what Tenney stands for, particularly on key issues like healthcare and taxes, and her conduct, which has garnered unfavorable national attention.
There is obvious risk of being perceived as boastful and arrogant. Building a large base of support in the district requires confidence and conviction, as well as self-awareness and humility. For Tenney, there is much of the former, and little of the latter.
Christian Conservatives often convey humility by speaking personally about their religious faith, drawing on a Christian language of sin, compassion, and forgiveness. Tenney has not discussed her religious faith during the campaign. If Tenney is religious, this may be a missed opportunity to help humanize herself, as I have documented with other Republican candidates, such as Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.
Taken as a whole, the last few weeks of Claudia Tenney’s campaign can be understood as a slight rhetorical shift to greater emphasis on her record. This was undertaken in the Trump mold, once again raising questions about Tenney's rhetoric and the validity her statements.
As with many things pertaining to the president, such an approach is inherently uncertain, given his less than ideal popularity in upstate New York, and recent reporting that Robert Mueller may be sharing his findings regarding Trump and obstruction of justice by the end of the summer.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.
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