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New York Remains GOP Trouble Spot

Upstate New York has been a killing field for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2009.

Who would have imagined that two adjoining districts in the remotest part of the Empire State would take on such significance in national politics — and that the topsy-turvy race in the 23rd district would throw Democrats a lifeline Tuesday in what otherwise was a downer of a night?

The question moving forward is whether a year from now, Republicans have a prayer of beating the two Democrats who won special elections in upstate New York this year — Rep. Scott Murphy and Rep.-elect Bill Owens.

Optimistic Republicans say yes. One operative familiar with the House GOP strategy said Wednesday that Murphy and Owens — business leaders who were political blank slates at the start of their respective races — “will have voting records— a year from now that won’t appeal to independent voters in the two politically moderate districts, which until recently were Republican strongholds.

“You’ll have someone with a record, and we’ll be able to offer a contrast to that,— the GOP strategist said.

What’s more, national Republicans have been highly critical of the way special election nominees are chosen in New York, which leaves the decision in the hands of a few party leaders and produced flawed GOP nominees in both races. They won’t be handicapped by that process next year.

“After two special elections in New York, there is no doubt in my mind that the candidate selection process lacks openness and transparency and should be changed to a primary system so voters can have a say in who their respective parties nominate,— NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) said in a statement shortly after Owens claimed a 4-point victory over Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman.

But for all the bold Republican talk, history has not been kind to challengers seeking to oust winners of special House elections. From the 1990 cycle through 2008, only three of the 78 House special winners lost when they subsequently ran for full terms.

And whatever the political dynamic is a year from now, the inescapable fact is that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, playing by the same rules as Republicans in the two New York special elections, smoked the NRCC — and that may be a hard thing for GOP challengers to overcome in 2010, when the two parties will be fighting it out on multiple fronts.

At the start of the special election to replace former Rep. John McHugh (R), nobody could have predicted the internal chaos that would wrack the GOP. Under harsh criticism from conservatives, their nominee, state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, dropped out of the race on Saturday and wound up endorsing Owens.

It was a tough situation for NRCC officials, who continued to defend Scozzafava and spend on her behalf until close to the end, despite the mounting cry against her.

“The NRCC lost two campaigns in one race,— grumbled one top New York GOP strategist.

Democrats enjoyed the GOP infighting — but also had a more polished political operation in the two special elections.

“The DCCC is just a lot better than the NRCC is right now,— said Steve Murphy, the Democratic media consultant who cut ads for both Murphy and Owens this year. “They’re both working the same process. They’re both using the same set of rules. But the Democrats came up with the better candidates — and they both came out of the woodwork.—

In New York, local party bosses select the nominees during special elections for Congress and the state Legislature, bypassing a primary. The system has been in place for decades, “and there’s a big benefit to local leaders, because it allows them to hand-pick their candidates,— said Joshua Spivak, a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York.

“Our process was a good process but didn’t produce a good result,— conceded Jim Ellis, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party in upstate New York, who did not vote for Scozzafava in the initial round of balloting among the county chairmen.

When there are Congressional vacancies, especially in potentially competitive districts, the national campaign committees inevitably get involved to some degree. Although her campaign tanked — damaged to a great degree by Hoffman’s candidacy and the enmity of national and state conservative leaders — there is ample evidence that the NRCC was initially enthusiastic about Scozzafava.

And early on in the special election that Murphy wound up winning this spring, the NRCC touted Assemblyman Jim Tedisco as a seasoned pol who could hit the ground running when he got to Washington, D.C. Only as the campaign progressed did tensions between the candidate and the committee boil over.

“The Democrats got the candidate they wanted in both districts and worked to make it successful,— said Brendan Quinn, a former executive director of the New York GOP. “The NRCC got the candidates they wanted and threw them under the bus to a degree.—

Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for the NRCC, said national party leaders are confident that primaries next year will produce strong nominees in both upstate districts. And he said recruiting quality candidates won’t be a problem — in New York or elsewhere, as voters grow disenchanted with the priorities of President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats.

“Because of this big-government agenda in Washington, more and more people are coming to us to run,— Mazzola said. “It kind of makes the normal recruiting process a little different.—

A line of Republican challengers to Owens may already be forming, and Hoffman, an accountant who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination this summer before casting his lot with the Conservative Party, is presumably at the front of it.

“I think there’s a good chance that he’s going to look at it,— said Rob Ryan, Hoffman’s senior campaign strategist. “He made an investment, and he did well.—

Other possibilities include three other people who sought the nomination but were rejected by the county chairmen: financial adviser Matthew Doheny, Franklin County Legislator Paul Maroun, and Joshua Lynch, a 26-year-old aide to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who grew up in the district.

“I think we come out of this with our head unbowed, ready to give it another shot,— Ellis said.

But there hasn’t been much buzz about the 20th district, where Tedisco is openly contemplating a rematch with Murphy — a prospect that does not thrill national GOP leaders. Former Assemblyman John Faso (R), who has twice run statewide, may also be in the mix.

Regardless of who emerges in the two districts, the DCCC intends to remain fully engaged with Murphy’s and Owens’ bids for full terms. Speaking of Tuesday’s results in New York and in the less competitive special election in California’s 10th district, DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) noted in an interview that the only two races that focused on Obama’s agenda — in contrast to the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey — were won by Democrats.

Looking ahead to 2010, Van Hollen said, “both Scott Murphy and Bill Owens are going to do what they said they would do in their campaigns: represent the best interests of their constituents. Sometimes that means they will support the Obama agenda and sometimes it means they won’t.—

Murphy, the media consultant, said that whatever political trends are taking hold nationally, upstate New York continues to be moving the Democrats’ way.

“People say it’s not 2006 or 2008 anymore,— he said. “Well, it is in upstate New York.—

Emily Cadei contributed to this report.

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