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Two House Reruns on Tap in N.Y.

Two Democrats who came close to ousting Republican House incumbents in adjacent New York districts last year seem determined to try again in 2008.

Eric Massa, a retired Navy commander who finished 6,000 votes behind Rep. Randy Kuhl (R) in the 29th district, said he expects to make a decision on a rematch within the next week. Dan Maffei, a former Capitol Hill staffer who gave veteran Rep. Jim Walsh (R) the closest race of his career in the 25th district, does not have a timetable for announcing his future plans but has been to Washington, D.C., several times since the election and is staying in close touch with donors and supporters.

Both Massa and Maffei have been commiserating with each other since the election — and both sounded very much like candidates in separate interviews. Equally significant, Democratic leaders appear willing to give both another chance.

“They’ve come within 2 points of sitting Republicans,” said one Democratic insider in the Empire State. “If they come out of the box organized and keep pressing for the next year, with our junior Senator possibly at the top of the ticket as our presidential nominee, it’ll be a real opportunity for them.”

But Republicans say the close calls for Kuhl and Walsh were as much a function of the poor environment for the New York GOP as the quality of their Democratic challengers. Democrats swept all statewide offices by large margins in 2006 and also picked up three Congressional seats. New York Republicans argue that the political terrain couldn’t possibly be worse for them in 2008, even if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is the Democratic White House nominee.

“Last year was a unique year for both parties,” said Dan Gage, a spokesman for Walsh. “In terms of Dan Maffei, he did a great job of latching on to the national sentiment. It was his best opportunity, and he fell short.”

But while the dynamics in the two districts differ — President Bush ran stronger in Kuhl’s Southern Tier district in 2004 than any place else in New York, while Walsh’s Syracuse-based district preferred Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) that year — Democrats believe both Maffei and Massa are sufficiently battle-tested to push themselves over the finish line next year.

Even without a formal declaration, Massa and Maffei have both remained active since November, hitting community and political events in their districts. Massa is working to elect Democrats to county and local offices in his massive district this year, and he has set up a Web site on which he offers weekly commentaries about the state of the 29th district.

Both Massa and Maffei traveled to Capitol Hill last week to support Operation Firing for Effect 2008 — a national veterans’ group for which Massa serves as communications director — in its quest for federal funding for veterans’ programs.

Massa, who was the right-hand man to retired Gen. Wesley Clark when Clark was Supreme Allied Commander Europe at NATO, said his wife and children want him to run again because “they could not live with the results of the election.”

But he said he will spend the next few days asking himself, “is this where I can do the most good for my family and my country?”

Bob Van Wicklin, a spokesman for Kuhl, was dismissive of Massa, arguing that Massa’s criticisms of Kuhl as a career politician — he spent two dozen years in the state Legislature before being elected to Congress in 2004 — ring hollow when the Democrat appears willing to become “a career Congressional candidate.”

“We don’t want a political campaign that lasts two years, and we don’t believe our constituents do, either,” Van Wicklin said.

During the 2006 campaign, some Democratic leaders sought to find an alternative to Massa, whose fundraising was uneven, especially at the start of the cycle.

In February 2006, state and national Democratic officials announced with a flourish that David Nachbar, an executive at the Bausch & Lomb eye product company, would run against Massa for the nomination. But within hours, they learned that Nachbar was an unaffiliated voter, making it extremely difficult to get him on the Democratic primary ballot given New York’s arcane ballot access rules.

Nachbar, who had told Congressional Democrats that he was prepared to spend at least $100,000 of his own money on the race, quickly deferred to Massa.

One Democratic source in New York said Nachbar was in touch with Democratic leaders shortly after Election Day to discuss the possibility of challenging Kuhl in 2008 but has not been heard from lately. Nachbar did not respond to several messages left at his office last week.

Jim Vogel, the Democratic chairman in Monroe County, the most populous jurisdiction in the 29th district, said Massa is the only person he has heard from who has expressed an interest in running against Kuhl and said the 2006 challenger had earned the right to seek a rematch.

“He’s clearly making his presence known throughout the district,” Vogel said.

In Walsh’s district, Maffei, who worked for two Senators and the House Ways and Means Committee and also was a TV reporter in Syracuse, has recently taken a new job with a Syracuse-area investment firm. But he said the job allows him the flexibility to remain politically active and he realizes that he will need to begin raising money soon if he decides to run again.

“I’m leaning towards doing it, I just want to make sure it’s for the right reasons,” Maffei said.

In 2006, Walsh, then a nine-term incumbent, spent more than $1.7 million on his re-election, almost twice as much as Maffei’s $875,000.

The fundraising figures in the 29th district were closer: Kuhl spent more than $1.4 million on the 2006 campaign, while Massa spent about $1.3 million.

Gage, Walsh’s spokesman, said the Congressman has taken his close call to heart and is retooling his Congressional staff and his campaign operation.

“It was really a perfect storm and we weathered it,” he said. “But it was also the perfect opportunity for us to look at our operations.”

The fact that Walsh is in the minority for the first time in a dozen years could turn out to be a blessing, Gage continued, because it will enable him to “be a little more involved in the priority issues” for the district.

The Congressman has a full schedule of town hall meetings on tap for this recess week — one sign, Democrats believe, that he is sweating his re-election.

Meanwhile, Maffei said he and Massa continue to talk regularly — and that he is reaching out to Democratic challengers around the country who lost close House races in 2006.

“Twelve of us came within 3 points” of winning, Maffei said. “I think all 12 of us should talk frequently — the ‘left on the table’ crowd.”

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