CORNING— Representative-elect Eric Massa was in the Soul Full coffee shop on Main Street explaining his position on a federal bailout of the auto industry when a slender man in a shirt and tie approached.
After congratulating Massa for his victory over incumbent Randy Kuhl, the man explained that he sat on the board of Gilda’s Club in Rochester, which provides support for cancer patients. He knew that Massa, 49, had survived a bout with Lymphoma, and was hoping he could stop by or meet with organization’s board of directors. Massa politely took the card, and the man walked to his job at the nearby headquarters of Corning, Inc.
Massa leaned in and swirled his latte like a glass of wine.
“See, he didn’t vote for me. I know that because he’s a Corning executive, which means he’s a Republican,” Massa said. “But in this district, if you’re present and you deliver for your constituents, you can win support.”
The election of Massa in November ended two decades of Republican congressional representation for the 29th Congressional district, which is generally considered to be a safe G.O.P. bastion in a decidedly blue state. The district contains 50,000 more enrolled Republicans than Democrats, and was last held by a Democrat in 1986. The Cook Political Report rates it as five points more Republican than the rest of the nation on their partisan voting index.
More remarkably, this wasn’t one of those cases in which the Democrat runs as a conservative. Though Massa is hardly a liberal by New York Democratic standards, the ideological choice between him and his opponent was abundantly clear.
Kuhl, the Republican, had co-sponsored an anti-gay marriage resolution, supported George Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, and in 2007 was rated the second most conservative member of New York’s delegation by the American Conservative Union. Massa, by contrast, supports single-payer health insurance, was named an “all-star” by the Howard Dean-esque Democracy for America group and receives high ratings from local and national liberal interest groups.
So what happened? Has this district changed for good?
People on both sides of the aisle say it’s too early to tell — the performance of the new president and re-districting before the 2012 elections are major factors - but Massa knows that either way, he has a struggle ahead.
It was the second run Massa has made against Kuhl, meaning he’s right to say he’s “a lottery ticket” when you consider statistics on congressional rematches. The margin of victory was narrow in both cases; in 2006 Kuhl won by four points, this cycle, Massa won by a few thousand votes.
”I’m not 100 percent sure, exactly how that happened,” Massa said. “I think it’s a combination of policy, persona, issues, and times — times being the times we live in. And if any of those had changed, I don’t think we could have won it.”
Certainly, the times played a part.
It was a bad year for Republicans everywhere in New York, with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket leading what prominent officials in the G.O.P. called a “tsunami.”
It also didn’t help Kuhl that he was conspicuously associated with George W. Bush – Massa showed off a blown-up banner of Kuhl and the president, who visited the district in 2006. It also hurt Kuhl that he had previously caught flack for a DUI conviction and a nasty divorce.
The numbers show a roughly five percent shift. Kuhl won more votes than 2006 in every county in the district, which would softens the theory that the election was lost by him rather than won by Massa. What put the retired naval commander over the top was a surge of new voters, some transplants, who have altered the overall sensibility.
John Martini, along with his wife Ann, runs the Anthony Road Winery on the western shore of Seneca Lake. Raised in New Jersey as a moderate Democrat, he has lived in the district since the 1980s. When they started to make their own wine in 1989, Martini recalled, they were the 12th winery on the lake. Now there are over 100, and the road south from Geneva to the Martini’s is dotted with bed and breakfasts and vacation homes more opulent than long-term residents – like Ann, who was born in Rochester – are used to.
In 2002, Martini was elected to the Town Board in Torrey, and served as the only Democrat. As development pressures increased, more people started coming to meetings. In 2008, another Democrat was elected.
”It’s brought in – liberal is the wrong word – people with a broader view of life,” John said. And the long-timers have watched the idea of a moderate Republican party shift beneath their feet to a “southern Republicanism” which, he believes, reached a tipping point locally. “It’s the bell-shaped curve. The middle moves it.”
So did the infusion of nontraditional upstaters, in fact, move the middle? Or was it just that the new people turned out?
Bill Nojay, a Republican radio talk show host, said he doesn’t buy the idea that the election was ever Kuhl’s to lose, regardless of the presumed advantages of incumbency.
The final tallies, for instance, showed that Kuhl got more votes in six of the district’s eight counties county this election than he did in the last, but Massa profited from a surge above normal voting levels in both Chemung and Cattaragus counties.
“That’s not a rejection of Republican policies or Randy Kuhl, but an increase in people who have not participated before, and they’re overwhelmingly turning out for the Democrats,” Nojay said over breakfast at a diner in downtown Geneva. “It’s not a sea change, it’s a five percent shift.”
People in the district are still conservative, Nojay said. Most elected officials are Republicans. Like George Winner, who replaced Kuhl in the State Senate and is mentioned as a candidate against Massa in either 2010 or 2012.
He, too, disputes there has been a major shift among the district’s overall population.
“I think that the district, given a level playing field, would still be predominately Republican,” Winner said. “The district has always had Republican types of philosophical leanings: not to say that we don’t elect Democrats here and there, but people are generally fiscally conservative and believe in small government. They’re hard-working folks. The backbone of the economy here is agriculture and manufacturing and the like, and I think those messages are generally favorably received.”
Massa managed to make the election about those meat-and-potatoes issues by neutralizing some of the normal hot-button topics in rural upstate: he supports gun rights and echoes Clintonian position that abortion should be “safe, legal and above all rare.” But he was unmistakably the Democrat in the race. He often attacked Kuhl for changing his position to oppose the “card check” law, which is being pushed by labor organizations and would have workers form unions without secret ballots. He said he would let the Bush tax cuts expire. He kept a diary on Daily Kos and was called a “netroots superstar,” raising over $700,000 across the liberal blogosphere. He pledged to vote to opt out of or renegotiate NAFTA and CAFTA. He was endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Working Families Party.
When asked, Massa said he would describe himself as an F.D.R. Democrat – a neo-liberal in the political scientist’s, not the Fox News, sense of the term. After eight years of conservative policies that have led where they led, Massa said he believes a larger dose of government intervention is needed, and “at least 51 percent of the people in the district agree with me.”
In other words, it may be less that the voters in the district have changed than their priorities have.
The Finger Lakes in the district’s heart may be crawling toward reasonably prosperity and Corning will remain tidy so long as the eponymous company which sustains it endures. But this is upstate New York, and the dominant narrative has been one of decline as jobs and people move away. For every Market Street in Corning, there are at least three tired Main Streets like the one in Hornell. Economic improvement, or simple steering of federal dollars, will be crucial.
About an hour north of Seneca Lake, a geeky middle-aged man who asked to be identified as Rottenchester, the handle he used for the Fighting 29th blog he kept about the last election cycle, made exactly the same analogy as Martini, the winemaker. Over a pint of Bass at a bar near the just-frozen Erie Canal in Pittsford, the self-described moderate Democrat said that Massa’s presence in the district, both real and perceived, will be a larger factor than his voting record when it comes campaign time.
“There’s been a precedent for pretty liberal people in conservative districts,” Rottenchester said. “Somebody who brings home the bacon, people don’t care about their ideology.”
That was what worked for Stan Lundine, the last Democrat to hold the seat-he left office in 1986 to run for lieutenant governor under Mario Cuomo. Lundine, formerly the mayor of Jamestown and now a local attorney, was the stolid, moderate upstater to balance Cuomo on the ticket.
“Certainly Massa’s got to have a good constituent service operation,” Lundine said in a phone interview. “I think he’ll have to be an independent Democrat, and vote his conscience rather than his party on some major issues. I found that people could support you as an incumbent even though they disagreed with you on a few votes, if they were convinced that you were open minded and you listened to your constituents, and you were not a down the line voter with your party.”
A few days after the event with Massa at the coffee shop, I called the Corning employee and told him what the Representative-elect had said about him being a Republican. He laughed.
“That’s a good read, because I told him that my daughters had voted for him,” he said.
He said he was still rubbed the wrong way from how Massa’s 2006 campaign went – it had too much of a carpet-bagger feel. But he also said that he wasn’t bitter about Kuhl’s loss, and is approaching Massa with an open mind.
“If you get the job done,” he said, “I would vote for you.”