Politics

New York Could Hold Key to Democratic Majority in House

Tuesday's primaries are first hurdle in flipping competitive seats

New York Republican Rep. John Katko is one of the Democrats' top targets this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats are in a New York State of mind. 

Their party must pick up 30 seats to win control of the House, and to even come close, they need to sweep all or most of the competitive New York seats.

The first hurdle in that process is Tuesday, when Empire State voters select their nominees in the state’s congressional races.

In the districts with competitive primaries, Democrats need the strongest candidates to emerge to give them the best shot at flipping two open seats currently held by Republicans and unseating four GOP incumbents.

New York is important because Democrats can’t make up its 30-seat deficit in Illinois, for example, where they don’t have competitive recruits in enough seats.

[ Illinois Filing Deadline Passes Along with 2 Democratic Takeover Opportunities

Even in states like Iowa or Nevada, where Democrats do have candidates in targeted races, there are only two competitive seats in each state. They could win all four of those seats and still not make much of a dent.

The state with the biggest potential boon may be New York, home to one of the nation’s largest congressional delegations. Currently 18 Democrats and nine Republicans represent the Empire State in the House.

In a state that’s reliably blue at the presidential level, Democrats see a chance to take advantage of Donald Trump being at the top of the Republican ticket and the state's former senator, Hillary Clinton, heading the Democratic one. 

[ The Seats Democrats Must Win to Retake The House ]

Perhaps nowhere is Trump more of a factor than in New York’s 1st District, where freshman Republican Lee Zeldin has embraced the real estate mogul, and has suggested that President Barack Obama is racist.

Zeldin won this Long Island district in the 2014 GOP wave year by nearly 9 points, but Obama narrowly carried it in 2008 and 2012.  

Zeldin has predicted that Trump would "annihilate" Hillary Clinton in his district. 

The two Democrats running in the 1st District are eager to take on Zeldin over his support for the presumptive GOP nominee. But Trump’s crept up in the Democratic primary, too.

Venture capitalist David Calone is hitting ex-Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst for having previously donated to the Conservative Party, which has backed Trump.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not taken sides. But Throne-Holst has the backing of the state’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. She outspent Calone during the pre-primary reporting period and ended with more cash on hand.

Zeldin ended the pre-primary period with $1.8 million. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates this seat Tilts Republican.

Freshman Rep. Lee Zeldin has embraced Donald Trump's candidacy, something Democrats are hoping to use against him. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Freshman Rep. Lee Zeldin has embraced Donald Trump's candidacy, something Democrats are hoping to use against him. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

[ Roll Call’s 2016 Election Guide ]

The 19th District, located in the Hudson Valley, is an open seat that Democrats can’t afford to lose this fall. Obama won it twice, and with moderate  Republican Chris Gibson is retiring , they have an opening.

But they need the right candidate.  

The Democrat race features a name familiar to Empire State progressives. Zephyr Teachout , the former CEO of Mayday PAC, took 34 percent of the vote in her 2014 primary challenge to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Teachout has the support of Gillibrand and New York's senior Sen. Charles E. Schumer. She’s one of a handful of down-ballot candidates for whom Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders sent fundraising emails.

[ Democrats Look to Narrow Field in District They Can't Afford to Lose

But some New York Democrats are concerned that Teachout is too liberal for this largely rural district that she only recently moved to. They prefer Livingston Town Councilman Will Yandik, an Ivy League-educated farmer who’s local to the area.

Democrats are haunted by the 2014 loss of Sean Eldridge , the wealthy husband of Facebook CEO Chris Hughes, who never recovered from the perception that he was out of touch with the district . And some Democrats fear Republicans’ carpetbagging attacks are just around the corner if Teachout is the nominee.

But it’s hard to ignore Teachout’s higher name recognition and her access to cash: she ended the pre-primary reporting period with $906,000 , dwarfing Yandik's $70,000.   

The Republicans have a contentious primary of their own too in this Hudson Valley district. Former state assemblyman  John Faso has attacked businessman Andrew Heaney for a previous donation to then-Sen. Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. But Democrats involved in the district now say they’d rather run against Heaney because he’s embraced Trump.

Both candidates have super PACs working on their behalf. Heaney has been loaning his campaign money , but Faso ended the pre-primary reporting period with more money .

Both Faso and Teachout had double-digit leads over their primary opponents in a Siena College poll earlier this month. 

New York’s northernmost 21st District is tougher turf for Democrats. Republican Elise Stefanik became the youngest woman ever elected to the House when she won this Obama district in 2014.

The North Country is rural and massive, which makes campaigning here difficult.  Democrat Mike Derrick , a retired Army colonel, is challenging Stefanik, whom the National Republican Congressional Committee added to its Patriot Program for vulnerable members .

Derrick doesn’t face primary competition, but he’ll likely need more than the $277,000 he had at the end of the pre-primary reporting period to compete with Stefanik’s $1.2 million warchest.   

Democrats may find it difficult to dislodge incumbent GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik in New York's 21st District. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats may find it difficult to dislodge incumbent GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik in New York's 21st District. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In New York’s 22nd District, rated a tossup by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call, Democrats have coalesced around Kim Myers, the daughter of the founder of Dick's Sporting Goods.

Moderate Republican Rep. Richard Hanna is retiring, leaving behind an open seat in a district Mitt Romney barely carried in 2012.

[ Hanna Retirement Puts Seat at Risk for Republicans

The primary action here is on the Republican side. State Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, a tea party candidate who lost to Hanna by 7 points in the 2014 GOP primary, is running again. Businessman Steve Wells has outspent her in the pre-primary period and is benefiting from the support of Defending Main Street PAC, a super PAC backing moderate Republicans. Wells has also been helped by spending against Tenney from a super PAC funded by the Oneida Indian Nation.

The wild card in this race is independent Martin Babinec, who’s running on the Upstate Jobs Party line. Republicans in upstate New York have previously suffered from third-party candidates taking votes from them in the general election.

Both parties’ fields are set in the state’s 23rd District, which shares its southern border with Pennsylvania.

The DCCC has put John Plumb on its Red to Blue program. Romney won here by only 2 points in 2012. Democrats are eager to use Trump against the Republican incumbent Tom Reed, who has endorsed the presumptive GOP nominee. But Reed still has a significant cash advantage.  

One of the Democrats’ best pickup opportunities is in the Syracuse-based 24th District, a tossup seat that Obama won by double digits in 2012.

National Democrats have backed former Gillibrand staffer Colleen Deacon in a three-way primary to take on freshman GOP Rep. John Katko.

Democrats’ failure to recruit a competitive candidate in New York’s 11th District (which Obama won by 5 points in 2012) puts pressure on the eventual nominees in these six other districts to perform.

To make their potential gains count, Democrats need to hold retiring Rep. Steve Israel’s 3rd District seat on Long Island. It’s a seat rated Tilts Democrat by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call that Obama narrowly carried in 2012. Five Democrats are running here. Israel is supporting Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern. North Hempstead Town Councilwoman Anna Kaplan and former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi are also in the mix.  

Democrats shouldn’t have a hard time holding the safely Democratic 13th District in Harlem. It’s an open seat because 23-term Rep. Charlie Rangel is retiring, and five Democrats are running to replace him.

Contact Pathé at  simonepathe@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at  @sfpathe .

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