At first glance, the potential (likely?) demise of Vito Fossella’s political career makes for a timely boost for Democrats, who are now in prime position to claim the 13th District congressional seat he has held since 1997.
But it may be more trouble than it’s worth.
The district certainly is winnable for Democrats, especially if Fossella opts to seek re-election despite the scandals exploding around him. But even if he doesn’t – and there is word this afternoon that his resignation is now imminent – either of the Democrats now running, Steve Harrison and Domenic Recchia, would probably have a better-than-even chance against the Republican-to-be-named-later in the fall.
The 13th District is easily the most conservative in New York City and traditionally sends a Republican to Congress, but Democrats actually enjoy a slight partisan advantage. Largely because of 9/11, George W. Bush carried it by 10 points in 2004, but a more accurate expression of the district’s leanings can be found in the 2000 election, when Al Gore won it by eight points over Bush. Moreover, the political climate strongly favors Democrats in 2008 (just look at the party’s string of special election wins in GOP bastions this year), which figures to boost the Democratic nominee in the 13th by a few potentially pivotal points.
But winning the 13th this fall would cause a headache for the Democrats because it would eliminate what has been their logical solution to a redistricting dilemma now just a few years away. When the lines are redrawn for the 2012 cycle, New York is certain to lose at least one of its
27 29 House seats, and more likely two. This will necessitate merging existing districts.
Having Fossella – or any Republican, for that matter – in the 13th actually positions the Democrats well for redistricting, since they could propose merging the 13th with one of the Democratic strongholds in Brooklyn, pitting Fossella against a Democratic incumbent in a new, solidly Democratic district. But if a Democrat takes Fossella’s seat (and holds it in the 2010 cycle), this option won’t be nearly as attractive.
What’s worse for Democrats, they probably won’t have many other options. Call it a consequence of success: There are now just six Republicans left in the state’s Congressional delegation, a number that could shrink much further this year. Fossella was a perfect target for redistricting.
The situation is somewhat analogous to one across the Hudson, in New Jersey’s 7th District, which cuts across the north-central part of the state. Mike Ferguson, a four-term Republican incumbent, is giving up his seat this year in what has been a marginally Republican district. The fall race will be competitive, but victory for the G.O.P. is possible.
But if either of the two leading Republicans vying for the seat – Leonard Lance, the former state Senate Minority Leader, and Kate Whitman Annis, the daughter of former Governor Christine Todd Whitman – ends up winning it, redistricting will probably make it a pyrrhic victory. That’s because New Jersey, like New York, will be on the short end of reapportionment in 2012 and will lose one seat. But if a Republican wins Ferguson’s seat (and retains it in 2010), expect Democrats to push hard for the district to be merged with the neighboring 11th District, a suburban Republican stronghold that has been represented since 1994 by Rodney Frelinghuysen. That would pit either Lance or Whitman Annis against an entrenched incumbent in a G.O.P. primary in 2012, one in which the demographics would probably favor Frelinghuysen.
Both districts just reaffirm the old truism that the biggest threat to a member of Congress often isn’t re-election – it’s redistricting.