Both parties evaluating potential candidates for race to replace disgraced New York Rep. Chris Lee

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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As both parties gear up for the 2012 election cycle, the 26th District of New York could become a preliminary battleground, as the parties vie to replace former Rep. Chris Lee, who resigned last week after an extramarital online flirtation was exposed.

The special election to replace Lee won’t be held until New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo calls for one, and he has given no indication as to when he will do so, and legally he doesn’t have to do so. However, it is expected that he will do so sooner or later. As one Republican strategist put it, leaving the seat empty “would hurt too much politically.”

In the mean time, both parties are going ahead with the process of choosing candidates. On the Republican side, that process is led by the seven county chairs. They met on Sunday to discuss the process of nominating a candidate and since then have been interviewing potential candidates. According to Nick Langworthy, chair of the Erie County Republican Committee, on Sunday they will conduct their final interviews with the people who are “kind of considered our finalists.”

The list of being interviewed includes state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, talk show host Kathy Weppner, Iraq war veteran David Bellavia,  Amherst town Supervisor Barry Weinstein, and Dan Humiston, president of Tanning Bed Inc. Jack Quinn III had also been floated as a possible candidate, but he has removed himself from contention. Erie County Executive Chris Collins’ name had also been suggested, though Langworthy says was never actually in contention.

Corwin is generally considered to be the frontrunner, but Langworthy said there have been no decisions made yet.

Corwin is “certainly getting the most attention from the press,” he said, adding that that was not a result of anything that had been decided. It’s a “real process, open process, transparent, not hidden any step of the way,” he said.

The county chairs will meet to vote shortly after the final interviews on Sunday, according to Langworthy, though he noted that they are “not committed to an actual time table.” The seven chairs will hold a weighted vote, in which Langworthy gets the most sway, as Erie County received the bulk of the Republican vote in the last election.

The Democratic candidate selection process is similar, with the seven county chairs getting together to vote. The name most often mentioned as a possible candidate is Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul who has not yet said if she will actually run.

The 26th district is traditionally Republican; the GOP has a significant voter registration advantage in the district, and in the gubernatorial election in November, the 26th went for Republican candidate and Tea Party favorite Carl Paladino.

If Democrats cannot field a particularly strong candidate who can overcome those hurdles, there is speculation that they will not put up a fight for the seat, and attempt to get rid of it in redistricting. But some have suggested that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee could decide to make a play for the district as a way of building momentum for 2012.

Corwin told The Daily Caller last week that since this would be the only election occurring at this moment, “it could potentially be a referendum on President Obama’s new direction,” and suggested that “a lot of national attention could be paid to this race, meaning a lot of national resources being put on it.”

But New York Rep. Steve Israel, the DCCC chairman, acknowledged the difficulties in a statement on Wednesday, noting that the DCCC had not yet decided what level of involvement it would have. “I don’t think anyone is prepared to make the assessment that New York 26 is a Democratic district, and I certainly have not made that assessment,” he said.

DCCC spokesperson for the Northeast Josh Schwerin added that “an assessment [will be] made once there is a candidate and the election is set.”

According to The Buffalo News, DCCC support is considered to be necessary for Hochul to run. “Most sources say Hochul must receive a promise of significant help from the DCCC, because the Republicans enjoy an enrollment advantage, a well-heeled candidate in Corwin, and the possibility of three lines on the ballot,” the paper reported.