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Massa Seat: Rare Bright Spot for the N.Y. GOP?

Republican campaign operatives cheered the news last week that Corning Mayor Tom Reed (R) has decided to challenge freshman Rep. Eric Massa (D) in New York’s 29th district, a move that sets up what is expected to be one of the top-tier contests of 2010.

Massa defeated then-Rep. Randy Kuhl (R) by 2 points in November in a rematch of their 2006 race. Republicans are optimistic about Reed’s chances of winning back the seat because they believe that Massa is particularly vulnerable.

Republicans argue that Massa’s victory last year was largely a function of Kuhl, who was never overly popular in the district, running a weak campaign.

But Democrats believe Massa is well-positioned to win re-election in 2010. They contend that he ran a highly effective campaign in 2008, driven by an efficient ground operation, a broad fundraising base and the support of the labor unions, which are powerful in certain pockets of the district. If Massa can replicate those aspects of his campaign, Democrats believe he will be very difficult to beat.

Reed, a practicing lawyer and owner of a local golf course, is midway through his first term as mayor of Corning. He ousted an incumbent Democrat, Frank Coccho, in 2007. If he is successful in his quest against Massa, Republicans can count the 37-year-old among a growing number of promising young politicians who are viewed as the future of the party. That’s particularly important in New York, where the GOP has an alarming scarcity of rising stars.

“I think Mayor Reed has a very good chance in 2010 because of the growing discontent with Albany and Washington, [D.C.],— said Brendan Quinn, an Albany-based Republican strategist. “People are not happy right now, and the people in office now are the ones taking the blame.—

One of the keys to the GOP’s success will be whether the party can effectively paint Massa as a liberal Democrat who marches in lock step with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Gov. David Paterson’s (D) unpopularity — his approval rating has dropped below 20 percent — could also hurt Democrats like Massa.

Democrats say the guilt-by-association argument will be a tough one to make against Massa, who has broken with his party on some key votes.

The freshman voted against the majority of Democrats on the high-profile climate change bill that passed the House in late June but supported his party leadership’s effort to push through the politically polarizing stimulus package earlier this year.

“I have never, nor will I ever, couch my vote based on a re-election campaign,— Massa said in a conference call with reporters last week. “And overall, the response to this decision [to vote against the climate change bill] has been overwhelmingly popular.—

Even though the stimulus has been fairly popular in New York so far, Republicans say that vote could come back to haunt Massa because of the staggering number of job losses that have recently plagued the depressed upstate district.

“If you go upstate anywhere, you talk to people who know people who grew up here and can’t come back because there are no jobs,— Quinn said. “People are going to be paying attention to this election a lot more than they did last time.—

Registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in the district by 50,000, although that advantage does not automatically translate into a victory at the polls, as the recent special election in New York’s nearby 20th district proved. Republicans held an ever-larger registration advantage in that district but lost the race.

The GOP registration gulf did not make a difference in Massa’s victory over Kuhl last year. But Kuhl, by most accounts, ran a lackluster campaign last cycle and never truly recovered his standing in the district after damaging sealed records from his messy divorce were made public during the 2004 election.

Massa came close to ousting Kuhl in 2006, with little support from the national party. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent more than $900,000 on the 29th district race last year (spending by the National Republican Congressional Committee there topped $600,000).

Democrats are wasting no time taking their whacks at Reed, who they figure is not known yet to most voters.

On the day that he announced his candidacy, state Democratic Chairwoman June O’Neill issued a lengthy statement accusing Reed of raising taxes while mayor.

“Leave it to the NRCC to tout a candidate who’s best known for raising taxes and fees during his brief tenure as Mayor,— O’Neill said. “The GOP needs to stop trying to sell their empty rhetoric on lower taxes because their record, just like Mayor Reed’s, tells an entirely different story. With recruits like these, it’s no wonder there are only three Republicans left in the entire New York Congressional delegation.—

Still, one senior Democrat notes that historic trends are against Massa in the 29th district.

“I think that Massa has a challenge to hold onto the seat because it still is a predominantly Republican district,— said former Rep. Stan Lundine (D), who represented parts of Massa’s district in Congress and is a former lieutenant governor. “And the off-year elections following the presidential tend to favor the party out of power.—

Democrats concede that Massa’s re-election depends ultimately on his ability to distance himself from Democratic Party leadership.

“They are going to pick on him for any vote that makes his allegiance seem more to the party than to the district,— Lundine said. “He has to convince people he is independent — that he makes decisions based on what’s good for the district.—

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