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Republicans Line Up for Lee Seat

New York Republicans are shrugging off Wednesday night’s embarrassing and abrupt resignation of Rep. Chris Lee (R) and eagerly eyeing a special election.

Less than 24 hours after Lee resigned amid scandal, the New York GOP likes its chances.

“We are fortunate to have an energized Republican Party and a deep bench of potential candidates in Western New York,” state GOP Chairman Ed Cox said Thursday. “I am confident that a very strong and qualified candidate will be selected to run who will continue to ensure that the people of the 26th district are represented in the Republican majority in the House of Representatives in Washington.” 

New York election law gives Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) wide latitude in deciding whether and when to call a special election in the Republican-leaning district, which now becomes a likely target for elimination through the reapportionment process. New York is slated to lose two Congressional seats in the coming months.

A special election would be held within 30 days of Cuomo formally declaring a vacancy. Former Gov. David Paterson (D) showed a willingness to delay the process for political and practical reasons in the past.

Republicans have already begun to rally around Assemblywoman Jane Corwin. Recent GOP gubernatorial candidate and tea party favorite Carl Paladino has already ruled out a run and thrown his support behind Corwin, according to a Buffalo television station.

Corwin was first elected to the Legislature in 2008 and represents parts of Niagara and Erie counties in the western portion of the district. She will make a formal decision “in a couple of days,” according to a statement released Thursday afternoon.

“Because the stakes are so high for area taxpayers, I will be discussing a possible Congressional campaign with my family and Republican leaders throughout the 26th Congressional District and will have a decision in a couple of days,” she said. “I know that with a Special Election looming in weeks, time is of the essence. Should I decide to run for Congress, I can assure all concerned that my campaign would have the resources to win and keep this seat in Republican hands.”

The party nominees will be chosen by a weighted vote of county party leaders instead of a primary. The 26th district includes all or parts of Erie, Niagara, Orleans, Genesee, Wyoming, Monroe, and Livingston counties.

To say Lee’s fall was sudden is an understatement. On Wednesday afternoon, the website Gawker posted an alleged e-mail exchange between a man who used Lee’s name but identified himself as a divorced lobbyist. Gawker also posted a shirtless image of the Congressman that was allegedly included in the exchange. 

Lee, who is married, formally resigned by 6 p.m. 

Even with Lee’s embarrassing departure, his seat is expected to stay in Republican hands in a special election. The GOP enjoys a 26,000-voter registration advantage in the district. Republicans have performed well even in the Democratic wave years of 2006 and 2008. In recent presidential contests, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) defeated President Barack Obama here by 6 points in 2008, and President George W. Bush hammered Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by 12 points in 2004.

But Democrats aren’t writing off the seat.

Rural county leaders are pushing Kathy Konst, a former state lawmaker who is now working in GOP Erie County Executive Chris Collins’ administration, according to the New York blog Capital Tonight.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton “has been approached by some party insiders about the possibility of running” and “is weighing the possibility of a bid, according to several sources familiar with his thinking.” Burton, a longtime Democratic aide who worked at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee before joining the Obama campaign, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Other potential GOP candidates mentioned include Assemblyman Jim Hayes, Assemblyman Steve Hawley, state Sen. George Maziarz, Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks and businessman Dan Humiston, who owns the largest tanning salon chain in the state and lost to Rep. Brian Higgins (D), 74 percent to 23 percent, in the neighboring 27th district in 2008.

Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz and Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul are also mentioned as potential candidates for the Democrats.

Nathan L. Gonzales contributed to this report.

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