Several competitive Congressional primaries are on tap in New York and Washington state today — in districts that could help determine which party controls the House next year.
Half a dozen other states from coast to coast and the District of Columbia are also holding primary contests today. By Wednesday only Hawaii (with primaries on Saturday) and Louisiana (whose primaries coincide with Election Day) will have not chosen nominees for state and federal offices.
In New York, the most heated primaries are in two open districts. But two 11-term incumbents — Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R) and Major Owens (D) — face tough challenges, even though they are favored to win.
Perhaps the most contentious primary, in the final days, has been in the 29th district, which runs from the state’s Southern Tier to Rochester, where two Republicans are fighting to replace retiring Rep. Amo Houghton (R).
In a battle of ideology and geography, the race pits an establishment Republican from the Southern Tier, veteran state Sen. Randy Kuhl, against a movement conservative from the Rochester area, Monroe County Legislator Mark Assini.
Kuhl, based on his institutional support — which included an early endorsement from Houghton — is favored. But Assini believes his supporters, while less visible, are more committed.
“I have a network — there’s going to be some surprises in this district,” he said. “It’s a real tug of war at this point between the establishment and the rank and file.”
Assini also believes the current low standing of the state Legislature among voters will prove to be an asset for his campaign.
Still, Kuhl was exuding confidence in the primary’s final hours.
“This campaign has built a strong and steady foundation of support over the past five months, and that’s very important,” he said.
Assini threw some hard punches at Kuhl last week, airing two critical radio ads against Kuhl, one — based on an 11-year-old statement the Senator made to The New York Times — accusing him of bigotry.
That ad drew a stern rebuke late last week from Bob Lonsberry, a popular conservative talk show host in upstate New York, who publicly endorsed Kuhl.
“That makes Mark Assini too dangerous to elect,” Lonsberry said of the ads. “That makes Mark Assini one more say-anything-to-get-elected party hack.”
Because the 29th district gave President Bush his strongest showing in the Empire State in 2000, national Republicans do not appear to be sweating the primary outcome.
“Whoever wins that district’s going to be the next Congressman,” said Carl Forti, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But in a curious twist that could have some impact on the general election, Assini and Kuhl are also squaring off in a primary for the Conservative Party nomination today.
Assini was the choice of the state leaders of the small but influential third party. But Kuhl, who has been supported by the Conservative Party in most of his legislative races, forced a primary by collecting the requisite number of petition signatures.
Registered Conservatives in the district now have the option of writing in Kuhl’s name on the primary ballot. There are 6,800 registered Conservatives in the 29th district, and it is hard to predict who will turn out — and how they will vote.
Democrats, who are high on their likely nominee, 27-year-old political operative Samara Barend, are hoping that Kuhl and Assini are both on the general election ballot — one as the Republican nominee and one on the Conservative line — splitting the Republican and conservative vote. Barend, though a long shot given the district’s voting patterns, has impressed party leaders by raising $216,000 through Aug. 25. She had $172,000 in the bank.
Assini has suggested that he will campaign actively through November if he loses the Republican primary but wins the Conservative contest.
“I think it’s wrong to cut deals,” Assini said, responding to entreaties that he pledge to support the winner of the GOP contest. “We’ll leave the decision up to the voters.”
Through Aug. 25, Kuhl had raised $348,000 and had $118,000 on hand; Assini had raised $127,000 and had $79,000 in the bank.
New York, New York: 3 Other Races
In the Empire State’s other open seat, the Buffalo-area 27th district, state Assemblyman Brian Higgins (D), the choice of the party establishment in Erie County and Washington, D.C., is expected to win a five-way primary today.
But while predicting a Higgins victory, Joe Illuzzi, publisher of the Web site politicswny.com, said Higgins’ strongest challenger, West Seneca Town Supervisor Paul Clark (D), appeared to be making some gains in the final days — based in part on his endorsement from the AmPol Eagle, an influential newspaper in the voter-rich Polish-American community of Cheektowoga.
A late July poll conducted for Higgins, who was endorsed last week by The Buffalo News, showed the lawmaker with a 53 percent to 10 percent lead over Clark.
The primary winner will face well-funded Erie County Comptroller Nancy Naples (R) in the general election to replace retiring Rep. Jack Quinn (R) — a race that is considered a true tossup at this point. While the district has an 80,000-vote Democratic overlay, Naples, who is personally wealthy, is a proven votegetter who is sitting on more than $600,000 in her campaign account. Quinn, who has prospered despite the district’s partisan loyalties, is working hard for Naples. And NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds, who represents an adjoining district, has a personal stake in the race.
Meanwhile, in the central New York 24th district, Boehlert is expected to prevail in his primary rematch with former Cayuga County Legislator David Walrath (R).
Attacking Boehlert from the right, Walrath caught the Congressman by surprise in 2002, taking 47 percent of the primary vote. But Boehlert has been far better prepared this time, raising $1.3 million this cycle and relying on conservative icons like former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) to stump with him.
And in Brooklyn, Owens is favored to defeat two New York City councilwomen who are scions of political families, Tracy Boyland and Yvette Clarke, in the Democratic primary. Owens has already announced that this is his last campaign.
Washington: 2 Districts, 3 Primaries
While there is a lot of uncertainty about who will emerge from closely fought primaries in the 5th and 8th districts, one thing is definite — both parties will pour significant resources into the winners’ coffers.
Both parties see these open seats as essential to winning control of the House.
Washington’s late primary, combined with a brand-new primary system, has created anxiety among party leaders and voters alike.
It is hard to handicap the races as no one is exactly sure which voters will show up at the polls today.
“The new primary is really a factor in who’s going to win,” said GOP consultant Jim Keough, who is not working for any House candidate.
Keough noted that the restricted primary — the first Evergreen State voters have faced in almost 70 years — could result in turning out only the party faithful. If that is the case, candidates who would have had broad appeal under the old blanket primary system, in which voters could cross-party vote, may not fare as well.
Whoever emerges as the GOP standard-bearer in the Eastern Washington 5th district will face Spokane businessman Don Barbieri (D) and his significant war chest.
State Rep. Cathy McMorris, state Sen. Larry Sheahan and Spokane attorney Shaun Cross are locked in a tough battle for the GOP nomination in the 5th. Each has tried to make the case for why he or she is the heir apparent to the popular retiring Congressman, George Nethercutt (R), who is running for the Senate.
McMorris has the backing of the Club for Growth and won The Seattle Times endorsement, though Sheahan has tried to hang it like an albatross around her neck, saying it proves “liberals” in Seattle are undermining the race.
Sheahan swept the law enforcement endorsements but entered the final days of the campaign with almost nothing in the bank.
Cross is in much better financial shape and was endorsed by the Spokane Spokesman Review, an endorsement that no doubt has more meaning than the Seattle paper’s in this sprawling Spokane-based district.
A poll conducted six weeks ago for McMorris’ campaign showed a whopping 43 percent of primary voters undecided. Of those who had made up their mind, McMorris was favored by 25 percent, Sheahan by 21 percent and Cross by 11 percent.
In the 8th district, just outside Seattle, the latest poll shows the best-known candidates are in the lead. But political watchers still think anything is possible given the new primary’s volatility.
On the Republican side, popular King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, washed anew in publicity over his capturing of the infamous Green River killer, trumped his three opponents in a Survey USA poll conducted last week for KING-TV in Seattle.
Reichert had the backing of 41 percent of the 538 likely GOP voters sampled. State Senate Majority Floor Leader Luke Esser had moved into second place with 25 percent, Republican National Committeewoman Diane Tebelius was third with 16 percent, and Bellevue City Councilman Conrad Lee was last with 8 percent support.
The survey’s margin of error was 4.3 percent.
Many political observers do not trust Survey USA’s results because of the automated system the firm employs.
On the Democratic side, late-comer Dave Ross, a popular Seattle radio talk show host, led the pack with 41 percent of the 445 likely Democratic primary voters polled. Former RealNetworks executive Alex Alben, who entered the race before Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) decided to retire, was second with 23 percent. Interior designer Heidi Behrens-Benedict, who lost three consecutive races to Dunn, was third with 18 percent. A full 18 percent of Democrats polled said they remained undecided four days before the election.
The Democratic survey’s error margin was 4.7 percent.
All of the candidates stressed they were taking nothing for granted, and most were foregoing television advertising in favor of canvassing and direct mailings in hopes of reaching more solidly Democratic voters.
New Hampshire: Uphill for Democrats
The Granite State features potentially close primaries in both House districts.
Freshman Rep. Jeb Bradley (R) must dispatch with radio personality and conservative activist Bob Bevill today before facing one of four Democrats vying for the right to challenge him.
Attorney Justin Nadeau, a young, first-time candidate who describes himself as a “different kind of Democrat,” is the party favorite.
His most active opponent, software developer and Navy veteran Bob Bruce, has tried to paint Nadeau as not being a true Democrat, taking him to task for driving a gas-guzzling Hummer H2 and taking issue with Nadeau’s Federal Election Commission filings.
The FEC did send Nadeau’s campaign a letter seeking more details about his contributors.
Bruce has also pulled some veteran and union support away from the 31-year-old Portsmouth attorney.
Also seeking the Democratic nomination in the 1st district are attorney Peter Duffy and store clerk and party activist Travis Liles.
National Democrats think Bradley is potentially vulnerable even though he handily defeated highly touted 2002 Democratic nominee Martha Fuller Clark last time out in this Republican-leaning district.
The numbers are slightly more favorable for Democrats in the 2nd district, and national party leaders are cautiously optimistic about former assistant Attorney General Paul Hodes’ chances of knocking off five-term Rep. Charles Bass (R).
Hodes has proven competitive in the money chase and creative in the public relations department.
The former actor and producer is the only entertainment lawyer north of Boston. He and his wife also belong to a band that has earned a fair amount of free publicity for its Rock and Roll Back the Deficit tour playing Granite State clubs.
Hodes faces Wilton School Board member Chris Owen today, while Bass faces state Rep. Mark Brady, who is challenging him from the right.
Bass has proven himself difficult to dislodge, as evidenced by his 2002 race. Although he was outspent by his Democratic challenger, he captured 57 percent of the vote.
Other States: Little Primary Action
Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Vermont all have a limited number of Congressional primary contests today — and of those states, only Minnesota is expected to have remotely competitive House races in the fall.
Perhaps the most interesting primary in the Gopher State pits Dakota County Commissioner Patrice Bataglia against Jack Shepard, a convicted felon and international fugitive, for the Republican nomination in the 4th district. The winner will face Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum.
In Vermont, two disaffected Republicans are trying to deny wealthy businessman Jack McMullen — the establishment favorite — the right to challenge five-term Sen. Patrick Leahy (D).
McMullen, who failed to win a 1998 primary for the right to take on Leahy then, faces Peter Moss and Ben Mitchell today. Moss, a civil engineer, and Mitchell, a teacher and Socialist activist, both admitted to local press that they are running merely to call attention to their pet issues.
D.C.: No Barry in Federal Races
In the District of Columbia, neither seven-term incumbent Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) nor her Republican challenger, Michael Monroe, will face opposition in their respective primaries today. Norton is the heavy favorite in November: Her Republican challengers have averaged 6 percent of the vote against her.
Meanwhile, there is a fight on the Democratic ballot for the District’s Shadow Representative post.
The unpaid position is part of the three-member Shadow Congressional delegation created by the District in 1990 to lobby for statehood and full Congressional representation. The city provides office space to the trio, which includes two Senators and one Representative, but does not otherwise fund the positions.
Incumbent Rep. Ray Browne (D) will face Susana Baranano, a longtime party activist.
The pair battled in the 2002 primary, with Browne — who at two terms is the city’s longest-serving Shadow Representative ever — winning with 61 percent to Baranano’s 36 percent.
The winner will face the D.C. Statehood Green Party nominee, political activist Adam Eidinger, who runs the Mintwood Media Collective, a public relations firm.
Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.