In an election year when the Republican Party and the president are unpopular, and Washington itself has become shorthand for things gone wrong, Representative Randy Kuhl of Rochester is falling back on his state legislature experience, and casting himself a folksy local.
"It's all been about local issues," said Kuhl campaign manager Justine Stokes. "And I think the biggest contrast that we have here is that Congressman Kuhl is a lifelong resident here." Kuhl was born in the town were he now lives, Hammondsport. He also represented the area in the State Assembly for six years, and the State Senate for 17 years before he was elected to Congress in 2004.
Kuhl's campaign isn't depending on the McCain-Palin campaign to drive support.
"It's not necessarily about coattails or what's going on with the national party," said Kuhl campaign manager Justine Stokes, who cast Kuhl as somewhat apolitical, although he's one of the most conservative members of Congress in the state.
Not surprisingly, Kuhl's opponent, Democrat Eric Massa, a former Navy officer who lost to Kuhl by just over 6,000 votes in 2006, disagrees.
Massa's campaign is calling Kuhl's localism a ploy to distract voters from remembering how enthusiastic Kuhl once was about the current administrations. Kuhl even brought both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, separately, to the district.
"He didn't go the conventions," said Massa campaign manager Justine Schall. "Every time he's had a Republican leader in state, they don't do press. They only do fund-raising. He runs around saying how he's not a Bush rubber-stamp, but he voted 95 percent of the time with Bush. I mean, he can run, but he can't hide from his voting record."
Schall cited Kuhl's support for for Bush on issues related to the federal budget, Social Security, and more recently, the second version of the bailout bill.
Massa is in the Democrats' "Red to Blue" program and has the support of numerous high-profile Democrats (he formerly worked for Wesley Clark), and the Kuhl campaign says this is not a good thing, because Massa is already a Washington insider. The Kuhl campaign's Stoke sought to undermine Massa's fund-raising advantage in the last quarter by criticizing him for taking money from "those not as familiar with the area," like Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, and Representative Charlie Rangel of Harlem.
(In this campaign finance quarter–July 1 to September 30– Massa raised $65,269.98 and Kuhl raised $280,508.50. To date, Massa has raised $1,661,992.49 and Kuhl's $1,252,463.99; Massa now has $401,061 on hand, while Kuhl has $374,722.)
Stoke paints a scenario. "The position that we've held is he will walk in lock-step with these folks when he gets to Congress. Because, if you're a freshman member of Congress, and you're party is in the majority, and they need you're help on a vote, and they've given you a lot of money, and they've hosted a fund-raiser for you, whenever they give you a call, you're going to have to answer that call, and it doesn't really matter what he says about being an independent voice."
Politics being what it is, there may be something to Kuhl's characterization of his opponent. The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, the same day it endorsed the Democrat in another congressional race, backed Kuhl, even though they had previously endorsed Massa in 2006. The paper wrote that now Massa is "a walking briefing book" and "his connection to constituents is less clear, less developed. He's a big picture guy in a district with small-picture needs."
Somewhat incongruously, Kuhl's campaign is pushing the theme of "change." This, Schull said, is a different sort of change.
"I think what a lot of people understand is we got change two years ago when Democrats took over Congress," she said. "For people in upstate New York, they pay among the highest taxes in the country: in property taxes, income taxes."
She went on, "In an election year where, I think, a lot of people have been convinced that they need change, I think they're looking at this race and saying, 'You know what, maybe we don't need to change people just for the sake of changing the person holding this office." He added, "Change just for the sake of change is not always good change."