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Struggling to Find a Kelly Challenger

If the Democratic effort to expand the playing field and take back the House in 2006 is to succeed, then Rep. Sue Kelly’s (R-N.Y.) lower Hudson Valley district would seem a natural candidate for a more rigorous contest.

So far that hasn’t been the case.

Although Republicans hold a narrow advantage over Democrats in enrollment, Kelly has won the past four cycles by taking 60 percent or more of the vote. This past November, she beat her Democratic opponent by a whopping 34 percent.

“She has a lock on that district for as long as she wants it,” says Kieran Mahoney, a GOP political consultant who works for New York Gov. George Pataki (R), a resident of Kelly’s 19th district. Mahoney called the Democratic performance to date “stunningly uncompetitive.”

“The Democrats have not, shall not and will not mount a serious campaign against her,” he said.

Local Democratic leaders offered a slew of excuses for their inability to compete there — from the dispersed media market to New Yorkers’ general distaste for ousting incumbents to Kelly’s adeptness at maneuvering politically sensitive topics. But most agreed that their inability to persuade candidates with strong elective backgrounds to throw their hat into the ring was a key problem.

“Unfortunately this past cycle the Democratic powers that be didn’t want to step forward,” Dutchess County Democratic Chairman Joe Ruggiero said, adding that most of the “heavy hitters” had decided that the timing wasn’t right.

“If they were looking at the Major League of politics, what they put up is really at best Double A candidates,” added one former Congressional aide to a New York Member who is familiar with the district.

Republicans said Democrats’ inability to compete in Kelly’s swing seat was indicative of broader problems.

“I think Democrats have a recruiting problem nationally — it’s just another district they have a problem in,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti.

During the 2004 campaign, the eventual Democratic nominee, Michael Jaliman, sued his primary opponent, 2002 Democratic nominee Janine Selendy, two Selendy campaign staffers and the husband of a Selendy aide for defamation — claiming she and her associates had spread accusations that he was a member of the Communist Party and an associate of an alleged Iraqi spy. For her part, Selendy declined to support Jaliman after losing to him in the primary and waged a write-in campaign of her own.

“Apparently we have so many people thinking they can beat her that we can’t get situated and come to a conclusion,” said Westchester County Democratic Party Chairman Reggie LaFayette, who conceded that he has yet to be approached by any potential candidates for the 2006 cycle. He blamed the fact that a “virtual unknown” — Jaliman — had run against an entrenched incumbent for the Democrats’ poor showing. “I don’t even know who the campaign managers were for the two candidates,” said Lafayette, who also serves as Westchester County Board of Elections commissioner and took over as party chairman in September 2004.

“I’ve not been focused on this district at this point,” he added, pointing to the necessity of prioritizing the November 2005 local elections.

The Democratic chairmen in Orange and Dutchess counties said they had been approached by potential candidates but did not feel comfortable disclosing any names.

Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor and dean at the State University of New York at New Paltz, said that while there were plenty of individuals who could “make a race of it,” ranging from members of the state Assembly to county executives, the “cost-benefit for any credible challenger with elective experience is problematic.”

That said, the more likely option would be for a self-funding candidate to emerge, he believes.

“Westchester County is full of rich people who might one day decide they want to be in Congress,” Benjamin said, adding, with a laugh, “Bill Clinton could beat her if he wanted to.”

But to date, the only potential candidate to have expressed interest that any Democratic source would cite is Zachary Iscol, a 26-year-old Marine and Iraq war veteran currently stationed at Camp Pendleton in California.

Democrats contend that Kelly is still ripe for an upset, however, and believe they are making gains in the area.

“We are looking at her closely,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg. “As time goes on we think we are going to have more and more Democrats looking seriously at running for her seat.”

“The Hudson Valley is a swing area,” said Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Jonathan Jacobson. “We’ve been gaining in local races and counties,” he added, pointing to the Democrats’ sweep of five of the region’s six elected state Supreme Court justices in November 2004 and Westchester County’s Democratic county executive and board of legislators.

As for the post-Kelly period — she turns 70 next year — the former Congressional aide said that both parties appeared to face a rather shallow talent pool.

“Where’s the bench?” the aide asked.

One name that has been tossed about as a potential contender down the line is current Columbia Law School student Emily Pataki (R), daughter of the New York governor, who is widely rumored to be interested in the seat.

“She has an advantage: a good brand name,” Ruggiero said.

Emily Pataki did not respond to an interview request placed through her father’s press office.

For the moment, however, one New York Democratic consultant familiar with the dynamics of the district said that although nobody had “written off” the seat, national Democrats were not expected to channel more resources into knocking off Kelly.

“It just gets hard to defeat these guys,” the consultant said, pointing to Kelly and some of her New York Republican colleagues, Reps. Vito Fossella and Peter King, who represent districts that have been less competitive than the demographics would suggest.

Under the redistricting plan adopted in 2002, Kelly’s district added Republican areas formerly in the district of then-Rep. Ben Gilman (R). This bolstered her position somewhat. For instance, in 2000, President Bush beat Al Gore by a mere 2 percent. In November, Bush’s margin over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was 9 percent. Still, since the redistricting Democratic registration in the district has increased by more than Republican enrollment.

“I don’t think by New York standards the district is Republican,” the consultant said. “She’s had tough races in the past and won in a worse district, and now the district has gotten better for her.”

That said, Democrats and other political observers say Kelly’s association with the national Republican regime, unpopular in New York, could be her Achilles’ heel.

“If she’s going to be vulnerable, it’s going to be on Social Security,” said Ruggiero, who is also Wappinger town supervisor. “If she does vote with the president on this,” there could be a “serious backlash.”

But the former Congressional aide to a New York Member said that the predominantly moderate, exurban population of the district made the pro-business, pro-abortion rights Kelly the ideal Representative for the area.

“The right has thrown everything at her, and the left has thrown everything at her and she’s still standing,” the former aide said.

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