New York’s Democrats made a big show recently when House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer visited Albany, heralding the trip as the kickoff of a campaign to oust several more marginal Republican members of Congress.
“We’re going to create unity in the Democratic Party like in the Republican Party,” said Senate Minority Leader David Paterson, who met with Mr. Hoyer. Senator Paterson even threatened to turn New York into the next Texas, where in 2003 legislators working at the behest of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay gutted several Democratic districts during off-year reapportionment, increasing the G.O.P.’s Congressional majority in 2004.
Democratic strategists say that New York, as a blue state allegedly becoming bluer, is prime territory for Democratic gains in the House.
“Republican seats in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Connecticut-those are the kinds of districts we need to target,” said Martin Frost, who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee the last time it picked up any seats, in the late 1990’s.
The Democrats’ recipe for gaining seats in New York goes like this: Take the more marginal G.O.P. seats, add heat at the top of the 2006 ticket in the form of Senator Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (running for Governor), simmer in the sixth year of a G.O.P. Presidency (when the opposing party traditionally cleans up) and-voila!-the seats change hands.
The Republicans identified as vulnerable in this scheme include Representative Vito Fossella of Staten Island, Representative Sue Kelly of the Hudson Valley, and even National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Reynolds of Buffalo.
Fair enough-until you remember that you generally can’t beat somebody with nobody. Even as Democrats taunt the state G.O.P. for its shallow bench of statewide candidates-who runs after the collapse of Governor Pataki?-they have local problems of their own.
The Republicans say, “Show us the candidates”-and you have to give them the point. Not for nothing did the Democrats lose Congress 11 years ago: Atrophied state and county organizations attract lousy human material.
Without naming the guilty, let’s just say that the Democratic State Committee attenuated itself in recent years when it became an arm of the Assembly machine. While Senator Paterson talks of the new purpose he sees in Albany, the downstate-oriented, heavily minority and Jewish party-like the Democrats nationally-still needs to do better among Catholics, the largest religious group in the state.
“They’re not going to beat Sue Kelly or Vito Fossella or Tom Reynolds,” said Carl Forti, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s communications director. “Without finding A-plus candidates who can raise millions of dollars, you can’t put those seats into play.”
Take, for example, Mr. Fossella, who won his district with 59 percent of the vote in 2004. For years, labor activists have trained their sights on this district because it sports one of the highest percentages of union members, and Mr. Fossella’s voting record on pocketbook issues stinks. What’s more, even the Republicans say that he doesn’t work as hard as he could. Right now, the Democrats are torturing him over President Bush’s unpopular Social Security plan.
Mr. Fossella’s most formidable challenger would be State Senator Diane Savino, but she’s needed where she is to keep up the Democratic assault on the Senate’s Republican majority. That leaves Assemblyman Mike Cusick, a newcomer to elective office.
And in Westchester, nobody viable has emerged to take on Ms. Kelly. The most attractive possibility is real-estate heiress Connie Milstein, a prospect two years ago until she decided not to run. “I thought I had talked her into it,” sighed Mr. Paterson, “but pursuit does not constitute possession.” Throw in the fact that-surprise!-Ms. Kelly just brought home $45 million in transportation pork for her district, and you sour Democratic prospects further.
So where’s the action in competitive House races? The most vulnerable G.O.P. Congressman in New York remains freshman John R. (Randy) Kuhl, who in 2004 eked out a 50.6 percent victory in the 29th district, an area slightly larger than Connecticut along the state’s Southern Tier. Mr. Kuhl’s smelly divorce papers, publicized by his opponent’s campaign and now available on the Internet, contain allegations of gun-brandishing and other weirdness, which he disputes.
The Democrats, however, have a vulnerable incumbent of their own, freshman Representative Brian Higgins of Buffalo, who-while not erratic, and presumably not in possession of a gun-nevertheless has gained a reputation as a lazy candidate, earning a scant 50.7 percent of the vote in his district.
Only one possible candidate-former Wesley Clark aide Eric Massa-has stepped forward to take on Mr. Kuhl. Meanwhile, five seasoned politicians, including Assemblyman Jack Quinn III-the son of the Congressman who formerly held the seat-have been mentioned as possible challengers against Mr. Higgins.
Get the picture?