When Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) made his surprise retirement announcement in late April, political professionals regarded the Buffalo-area seat as a prime Democratic pickup opportunity.
Democrats may still win the 27th district seat next week, but it’s been a struggle all the way. By most accounts, the race between state Assemblyman Brian Higgins (D) and Erie County Comptroller Nancy Naples (R) is a dead heat.
“I’m not sure at this point in time that anyone can say with certainty that they’re going to win,” said Carl Forti, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Being at a stalemate just five days before Election Day in a district with 80,000 more enrolled Democrats than Republicans already represents a victory of sorts for Naples and the GOP. No polling has been released in the race since shortly after Higgins’ convincing victory in September’s five-way Democratic primary. That polling showed Higgins with a slight edge.
People familiar with the campaigns’ internal polls say they show a see-saw contest with neither candidate ever leading by more than a point or two.
But Democrats, buoyed by Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) rising numbers in Western New York, believe the momentum is now with Higgins.
“I think the Democrats are coming home — we’re going to see that next week,” said Suzanne Anziska, Higgins’ spokeswoman.
Still, the district gave Quinn six terms in Congress, usually by comfortable margins. Quinn, whose district includes a big bloc of blue-collar workers and a strong labor presence, is generally considered the most pro-labor Republican in the House.
Like Quinn, Naples is a political moderate with an independent streak and is trying to cast herself as a carbon copy of the Congressman, who has been generous with his help. He recently cut a TV spot for Naples in which he refers to the three-term comptroller as “one of the finest public servants we’ve had.” And the two campaigned door-to-door together last weekend in Cheektowaga, a working-class suburb known for its ethnic enclaves. It may well be the place where the race is decided.
“They’re cut from the same cloth,” Naples’ campaign manager, Cam Savage, said of the two Republicans.
But organized labor is strongly in Higgins’ corner, and it is supplying important ground troops. Higgins has accused Naples of siding with conservative Republicans and the wealthy on issues like tax cuts and the minimum wage.
“Nancy Naples has been thoroughly exposed as a George Bush Republican, not a Jack Quinn Republican,” said Greg Speed, communications director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Democrats like the fact that their candidate comes from a working-class background — his father and uncles were bricklayers and union leaders — while the Republican is a wealthy woman who seeded her campaign with $200,000 of her own money. Although she grew up in a middle-class household in Buffalo, Naples, who holds an MBA, worked on Wall Street and later ran her family’s insurance business. Her husband is a rich investor with close ties to NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds, who represents an adjacent district — and who helped get Naples involved in politics.
Even if Democrats have an edge in the class war, Naples is shrewd enough to have made job creation the first plank in her platform. She is touting her endorsement this week from the Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, the area’s largest business group, as well as support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business as a sign of her strength on the jobs issue.
Naples also has successfully put Higgins on the defensive, attempting to tie him to the increasingly unpopular state Legislature.
“It’s basically Higgins’ Albany and Nancy Naples’ county [work] and who can do the best job in Washington,” Forti said.
Higgins counters that he has thrived in Albany despite the dysfunction there, and notes that he participated in an unsuccessful coup attempt against the controversial Assembly Speaker four years ago.
Both candidates and party committees have been on the air for weeks, and the advertising onslaught is practically nonstop in the campaign’s final days. Through Oct. 13, Higgins had spent $781,000 and had $197,000 in cash on hand. Naples had spent $979,000 and had $212,000 in the bank. The NRCC and DCCC have each spent about $900,000 on the race to date.
Higgins also has brought in a parade of Democratic dignitaries, including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), top House Democratic leaders and New York Members, and the chairman of the state Democratic Party. Clinton is expected to speak at another Higgins rally on Saturday.
“They care about this one because they know it should be in the D column,” Anziska said of the Democratic leaders.
Naples has been less reliant on appearances from national Republicans — prompting accusations from the Higgins camp that she is purposely distancing herself from GOP conservatives, who have been nearby stumping in the open-seat 29th district race.
House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) was scheduled to tour a cancer research facility with Naples earlier this week, but bad weather prevented her from flying into Buffalo. Savage said Naples was eager to welcome Pryce to the district because the two are both in their 50s and share the same ideology and goals.
“Nancy likes to campaign with folks that she likes to work with and feels comfortable with,” Savage said.
Going into the homestretch, Naples has history on her side — not just Quinn’s electoral successes, but her own. She already has defeated Higgins in the 1993 race for county comptroller.
But Republicans also are painfully aware that the numbers in the district favor the Democrats.
“You basically need half the electorate to ticket split,” Forti conceded.