Republicans could have difficulties with special election in New York’s 26th district

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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The special election in New York’s 26th district was not supposed to be a problem for Republicans. The district is a Republican stronghold and has been so for the past 40 years. But with just two weeks until voters go to the polls, the Republican candidate, state assemblywoman Jane Corwin, is virtually tied with the Democratic candidate, County Clerk Kathy Hochul. So what happened?

For starters, it has become a three-way race with Jack Davis running on the Tea Party line. When the billionaire Davis first tried to get into the race, interviewing with the chairmen of the district’s county Republican parties, no one gave him much of a thought. Davis has run and lost for the seat twice before — as a Democrat. He reportedly sang his qualifications to the Republican committee.

But Davis, who got the Tea Party line when the Republican Party picked Corwin, currently registers with 24 percent of the vote. A New York-based consultant familiar with the area explained that on top of having good name identification, Davis is “exciting the base.”

“You know the scene [in Animal House] when John Belushi does his speech about when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? That’s what Jack Davis is. He’s getting these guys all whipped up into a frenzy,” the consultant said. “Doesn’t matter that he’s frickin’ nuts.”

The Democrats, for their part, are embracing that. Len Lenihan, the chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, called Davis one of the factors that “puts [Hochul] really in a great position to win this race.”

“Jack Davis is spending millions on the Tea Party line,” he said, and “drawing more votes away from Corwin than he is from Kathy.”

Livingston County Republican Party Chairman Lowell Conrad acknowledged that Davis could cause problems. “I don’t think he can win, but I think he can be a spoiler,” said Conrad, who noted that in his county, at least, Corwin appeared likely to do well.

Corwin’s spokesperson Matthew Harakal said that the issue was that Corwin was “running against two Democrats.”

“Frankly, he’s lying about his record and where he stands on the issues, and that’s really what it comes down to,” Harakal said, contending that Davis was doing “whatever it takes to get a vote.”

Asked why voters didn’t seem to be picking up on that fact, Harakal said, “I think they are; I think they will more so.”

The heated race is attracting outside help: Speaker of the House John Boehner stumped for Corwin on Monday, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was in Western New York stumping for him last week. Democratic New York Sen. Kristin Gillibrand will campaign for Hochul this week.

American Crossroads, the conservative group affiliated with Karl Rove, paid for an ad buy that started Tuesday in support of Corwin. Democrats said they actually see this as a good sign.

“They’re running scared,” said Levy. “Jane Corwin and the Republican Party thought this was going to be a runaway. Instead it’s a very competitive race.”

Lenihan said that the involvement of American Crossroads wasn’t going to play well in the district, and moreover, that the group wouldn’t accomplish its goal.

“Crossroads is coming in here to try to bring Jack Davis’ number down,” Lenihan said, adding that “an outside group coming in to attack a home grown product” probably wouldn’t be welcomed by voters.

“Davis is going to outspend whatever they spend in this thing,” he said. “He’s going to spend what it’s going take to try to win this.”

Another problem for Corwin, the New York-based consultant said, was the expectations game.

“They allowed the Democrats to … rope-a-dope them,” the consultant said, pointing to the fact that in the beginning, the Democrats acknowledged that it was a Republican district and expressed hesitance as to whether they should put in the necessary resources to really compete.

“They raised the expectations that Jane should win, and that she should win big,” the consultant continued, adding that Corwin’s people had played into that.

At this point, both sides say that things are exactly as they expected them to be.

“We always knew that it was going to be a close race,” said Corwin’s spokesman Harakal, adding that “we feel very comfortable with where we’re at right now.”

“Our internals have had us close the entire time,” echoed Hochul’s spokesman Fabien Levy. “I kept telling you guys … no one believed me.”

Corwin also faces a problem with the “class warfare” card, according to the New York consultant. Corwin is a wealthy businesswoman who has put one million dollars of her own money into her campaign.

The Corwin campaign, he says, played into that, showing the state assemblywoman in ads wearing “designer earrings” and “pearl necklaces,” the consultant said.

“Jane’s a regular person, just there family got lucky,” the consultant said. “They are the American success story. The sad part is that story’s not getting out, and she’s been defined as the rich bitch from Wall Street.”

Hochul’s campaign said that her personal wealth wasn’t the issue. “No one is faulting anyone for making money – there’s nothing wrong with making money in America,” said Levy. But, he said, the campaign faults her for saying she would vote for House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which they portray as taking away Medicare while giving tax breaks for the wealthy.

“The difference is that Jane Corwin is only looking out for the multimillionaires and the billionaires, trying to give tax breaks to literally the wealthiest Americans,” said Levy.

“That card always gets played,” said Conrad, dismissing it as Democrats “[playing] to the baser instincts of people.”