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N.Y. Congressional Hopefuls Gird for Spitzer Fallout

Predictably, almost reflexively, the National Republican Congressional Committee late Monday released separate statements challenging several New York Democratic Congressional incumbents and challengers to “return Spitzer’s sleazy money.”

The news releases came complete with pictures of the targeted Democrats with disgraced New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D).

“Candidates like [fill in the blank] can’t run under the theme of ‘change’ on the one hand while defending the politics of corruption on the other,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain wrote in each of the statements.

Now that Spitzer, in one of the quickest and most breathtaking political downfalls in American history, appears poised to resign, no one — not even the most optimistic Republican — is expecting the sex scandal that ruined Spitzer to truly rub off on Democratic Congressional candidates in November.

But that doesn’t mean Spitzer’s political implosion won’t be felt up and down the ballot in the Empire State this year — and even, to some degree, on Capitol Hill. If the Spitzer scandal is still reverberating in New York half a year from now, competitive Congressional campaigns could be affected, and so could the Democrats’ ability to dominate the redistricting process in three years.

“Spitzer’s destroyed the brand equity he brought to the party and deprives candidates of the fundraising and star power incumbent to a sitting governor,” said Erick Mullen, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic consultant who has worked several races in New York.

On the heels of a wildly successful 2006 election cycle, New York Democrats had every reason to believe that they would run just as strong in 2008.

Spitzer swept to victory with 70 percent of the vote in 2006, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) won re-election with an impressive 67 percent. Democrats picked up three House seats in New York last cycle and came close to capturing three more, partially on the strength of Spitzer’s and Clinton’s coattails.

As this cycle started, New York Democrats looked hopefully at the House districts where they had just fallen short, argued that their candidates would get a boost from both Spitzer’s popularity and Clinton’s White House bid, and dreamed of winning control of the state Senate, the last bastion of GOP power in New York, for the first time in 46 years.

But Spitzer, who blazed into Albany as a take-no-prisoners reformer, made several missteps as soon as he was sworn in, picking fights with legislative leaders, overstepping his authority and attempting to push through controversial measures without road-testing them politically. By the time The New York Times revealed Monday that Spitzer had patronized a prostitution ring, the governor had very little political goodwill left in state political circles.

Yet despite Spitzer’s political shortcomings, Democrats were able to win two state Senate special elections in the past year, moving them to within one seat of controlling that chamber and their long sought-after monopoly on state government.

One Republican strategist said that any Democratic momentum in the state has ground to a halt thanks to the Spitzer scandal, given the reluctance of Democratic candidates and officials to criticize him.

“So far, the delayed or even lack of a response has been pretty astounding,” the Republican said. “Even the politically tone-deaf would understand that the time for Democrats to distance themselves from the governor has come, and yet, they still seem reluctant to do so.”

In particular, the NRCC prodded freshman Democratic Reps. Michael Arcuri, Kirsten Gillibrand and John Hall; retired Navy commander Eric Massa (D), who is in a rematch with Rep. Randy Kuhl (R); and former Capitol Hill aide Dan Maffei (D), who is favored to win the open seat of retiring Rep. Jim Walsh (R).

Jennifer Crider, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called the NRCC attacks on the New York Congressional Democrats “the silly things they think they need to do” after losing a key special election in Illinois last week.

Nevertheless, on Tuesday, Gillibrand, who won a Republican-leaning Upstate district in 2006 and faces a tough re-election battle, became the first Democratic Member from the Empire State to publicly speak out on Spitzer.

“This is very grave and sad news,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “My heart goes out to the governor’s family. If these serious allegations are true, the governor will have no choice but to resign.”

Gillibrand also removed all pictures of Spitzer from her campaign Web site.

Her likely Republican challenger, former New York Secretary of State Sandy Treadwell, made no mention of the Spitzer scandal this week and instead issued a news release Tuesday attacking the Democratic Congress for its inaction on the foreign surveillance law.

Jon Powers (D), an Iraq War veteran who is competing for the right to challenge Rep. Tom Reynolds (R) in November, said in an interview Tuesday that while he believes Spitzer “has got to take responsibility for what he did,” he does not expect the scandal to be a factor in November.

But Powers said the Democrats’ fight to take control of the state Senate could be enormously helpful to his campaign, because there are two GOP-held open seats within the 26th Congressional district.

“We’ll continue to explore those opportunities for the state Senate because it’ll help our position,” he said.

Yet the fight for control of the state Senate could be colored by Spitzer’s downfall in both political and practical terms. Once Spitzer resigns, as the New York media have reported he is expected to do, Lt. Gov. David Paterson (D) will be sworn in as governor.

As lieutenant governor, Paterson presides over the state Senate and represents the tie-breaking vote. But there is no provision in New York law to fill a vacancy for lieutenant governor, meaning that the job will be left open — and that there will be one less Democratic vote in the state Senate — until after the 2010 elections.

Of course, Democrats could take control of the Senate this November, and some party operatives believe that Paterson, who would become the first black governor in New York history and the first legally blind governor in U.S. history, will be a political asset this election season. Paterson is the former Minority Leader of the state Senate and is close to several prominent Harlem Democrats, including House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel.

Regardless of whether Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is the nominee, the Democrats are expected to carry the state in the White House election. And Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who was re-elected in a landslide in 2004, remains a popular figure.

“Schumer’s gravitas and popularity will help, but Spitzer should resign this week so Paterson can gain his sea legs in time to do us some good,” Mullen said.

But one New York-based Republican strategist predicted that Paterson won’t be very visible on the campaign trail this year.

“He’s going to be busy being governor and trying to pull things together; I don’t think he’s going to be paying much attention to the elections,” the Republican said.

Democrats already hold a 23-6 edge in the New York Congressional delegation, and that advantage could grow in November. Democratic dominance of New York House seats could grow even further if the Democrats take control of the state Senate and are able to redraw Congressional maps after the 2010 Census.

One veteran Republican strategist in New York cautioned that anyone making predictions about how the Spitzer scandal affects New York politics in the future doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” the Republican said.

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