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In New York’s 19th District, House Race a Dead Heat

Four years ago, Rep. John Hall, a former rock musician, captured New York’s 19th district House seat after running an outsider campaign that drew notice in part because of back-up from fellow stars including Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt.

Hall’s musical buddies are still trying to drum up support for their old friend this election cycle. But the Democratic Congressman is struggling in his re-election bid as he faces the same anti-incumbent wave washing over many of his Democratic colleagues. The latest polls show Hall in an almost deadlocked race against Republican Nan Hayworth, a retired ophthalmologist who has relentlessly attacked Hall’s voting record.

Disgust with state and national politics and anxiety over the economy has made a slew of Congressional districts north of New York City prime battlefields in the Republican attempt to regain control of the House.

Even though Democrats have made major inroads in upstate New York in recent years, this large swath of the state, filled with new suburbs, aging industrial cities and sparsely populated rural areas, is still more conservative than New York City. President Barack Obama and policies such as health care have not sold particularly well here. But it remains to be seen whether a weak Republican slate at the top of the ticket, led by controversial gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, could diminish Republican House gains in the state.

Hall acknowledged that it has taken longer than expected for the country to rebound from the recession, a fact that has taken a political toll in this district that snakes up the Hudson River Valley. Furthermore, he said, Republicans have tagged him as the insider rather than the fresh face coming to change the status quo.

“I’m the Washington guy now. That’s what the other side is saying,” Hall said in a phone interview Wednesday.

But the Congressman vigorously defended his record of using government to solve some of the economic problems. He said had visited a car dealership in the district, and argued that his support for the auto bailout had helped save jobs there.

“If the people of this district want someone who will just kiss babies and cut ribbons, they can have Dr. Hayworth,” he said.

He sidestepped the issue of whether Obama unpopularity may be a drag on his race.

“I don’t think that is really important as what is going on locally,” Hall said. Even though Obama has been barnstorming around the country for House and Senate candidates, Hall said he didn’t expect the president to drop by his district before Tuesday’s election.

“I’m really busy working on my own campaign,” he said.

Hall also dismissed criticism that he was late to realize he was in political danger, saying that as soon as he was elected in 2006, he knew the 2010 cycle would be tough.

“I never take any elections lightly,” he said.

The candidate, a former member of the band Orleans, said he was grateful that his musician friends were still coming out to raise money and rally support for him.

Jackson Browne recently held a benefit concert for him in his district. Bonnie Raitt and Rosanne Cash wrote a letter urging women to support Hall.

“I don’t have Exxon Mobil, but I have Bonnie and Jackson,” Hall said.

Hayworth has attempted to tap into voter disillusionment, campaigning on a platform to repeal the health care law signed by Obama and supported by Hall. She has opposed future bailouts and stimulus measures and criticized Hall for his support of the cap-and-trade energy bill.

“The mood across the district is very sour because of the economy,” Hayworth said in a phone interview earlier this week as she was traveling to New York City for a fundraiser with House Republican leader John Boehner (Ohio).

While Hayworth has stressed her conservative fiscal credentials, she has also positioned herself as socially moderate, more in line with many of the independent voters in the suburban areas of her district.

The Republican candidate supports abortion rights, even though she backs parental notification and opposes government funding for the procedure. She said her husband, an obstetrician and gynecologist, has performed abortions. In his suburban practice, he helps patients make “deeply personal decisions” about the medical procedure, she said.

While Hayworth has been endorsed by affiliated with the tea party, she hasn’t gone out of her way to embrace some of the more controversial figures, such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

“Gov. Palin hasn’t been involved in our race,” she said.

A Siena College Research Institute poll released Wednesday showed the race for the 19th Congressional district is likely to be a nail-biter. It found Hall edging out Hayworth, 47 percent to 46 percent, with both candidates taking more than three quarters of their party’s voters. Independent voters were split equally, according to the survey, which was conducted Saturday through Tuesday.

The poll found that Hall has made up ground with independent and undecided voters in the past two weeks, when another Siena survey found him trailing Hayworth by three points. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is fighting hard to keep the district, recently investing $500,000 in TV spots that accuse Hayworth of wanting to privatize Medicare.

The ads were purchased on New York City TV, an expensive way to reach voters in a district that stretches across suburban Westchester and Rockland Counties and into Orange, Putnam and Dutchess counties.

While Hayworth and other New York Republicans may be helped by the anti-Democratic tide, they also face countercurrents. Unlike in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where Republicans are running strong candidates for governor and Senator, the GOP has fielded a weak slate at the top of the ticket in New York.

Polls show that in the governor’s race, state attorney general Andrew Cuomo is likely to coast to victory over Paladino, who has wounded his own campaign with his pugnacious behavior and incendiary remarks, including criticism of gays. Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are also comfortably ahead of their Republican opponents. A recent Siena poll found that Cuomo was leading Paladino by 8 points in the 19th congressional district.

“It is a challenge when it comes to House candidates,” a Republican strategist said of the New York situation. “The get-out-of-the-vote effort will be a big factor.”

Hayworth said she has long understood she could not rely on statewide races to bring out her supporters. She has also distanced herself from Paladino’s controversial comments about gays.

“His remarks were callous and unseemly for someone who should be concerned about the fiscal situation,” she said.

Not all analysts think House Republicans will be hurt by a weak statewide slate.

Steven Greenberg, the Siena College pollster, said that unlike in past years, House and state legislative races may be the ones to bring out voters in New York, who are unhappy with politicians in Albany and Washington.

“I think there is such displeasure, such anger — and not just among Republicans,” he said.

The barrage of negative advertising in House races by both the parties and outside groups is also shaping public perceptions about the candidates, Greenberg said.

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