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Parties Trade Barbs Over Special Election

The field is several days away from being finalized and the special election hasn’t yet been scheduled, but the battle in New York’s 26th district is already raging.

The debate has turned so sharply to the future this week that it’s easy to forget Republican Rep. Chris Lee resigned just a week ago. And that’s likely exactly what the GOP wants.

“I believe many people in this community think he shouldn’t have resigned,” Nick Langworthy, the Erie County Republican Committee Chairman and Lee’s former district director, told Roll Call on Wednesday.

“This is a strange turn of events,” Langworthy said of Lee’s abrupt resignation following a blog’s publication of e-mails that the married lawmaker allegedly sent to a woman on Craigslist. “But this community is moving forward.”

Both parties are moving forward as well.

News that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent a key staffer to the western New York district in recent days prompted local Republicans to complain of tampering from Washington. The DCCC fired back that Republicans are likely jealous of Democrats’ recent success in New York special elections.

It’s already getting nasty.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has been in regular contact with county officials on the ground but has yet to send anyone to help in the recruitment effort. That’s not the case on the Democratic side. Republicans took notice that DCCC Northeast Political Director Abby Curran visited the district in the days immediately after Lee’s resignation.

“I think that it speaks volumes when you see that they’re putting the DCCC in on their candidate selection process,” Langworthy said. “Whoever the Democrats pick is going to be the handpicked candidate of the DCCC and Nancy Pelosi. We feel very strongly about local control.”

Informed of Langworthy’s comments, DCCC Chairman Steve Israel told Roll Call that they were “ludicrous.” And in a larger discussion with reporters Wednesday, the New York lawmaker reiterated that local officials are leading the recruitment and selection process for when Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) schedules  the special election. The conventional wisdom now suggests the contest would take place in April, although the governor has offered few hints as to the timing.

“I’ve been in touch with the county chairs ­— they are recruiting candidates,” Israel said. “We will be able to make an assessment in strict consultation and collaboration with the county chairs based on a variety of factors, including who the candidate is, when the election will be. … Until those factors gel, we can’t make an assessment of whether it’s winnable.”

Israel downplayed expectations, noting that both Democratic presidential candidates in 2008 and 2004 lost in the right-leaning district.

To say that Republicans are confident is an understatement.

“We have several outstanding candidates who have a wide range of backgrounds and experience that will resonate with western New York voters. Compare that to the Democrat field that looks more like amateur hour than anything else,” one Republican campaign aide said.

County GOP chairmen are interviewing prospective candidates and will vote for a single Republican nominee as early as Monday. Their crowded field includes state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, the presumed frontrunner on the Republican side, and Jack Davis, a former Democratic Congressional candidate who switched parties last year after becoming a Lee supporter.

“I believe him to be a Republican in good standing, but he’s got to make the case to my six colleagues,” Langworthy said of Davis.

On the Democratic side, Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul has emerged as the most likely to win the nod from the Democratic county chairmen. A lawyer and wife of a U.S. attorney, Hochul previously worked as a legislative assistant for former Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D) and former Rep. John LaFalce (D).

Other Democrats mentioned as possible contenders include Kathy Konst, a former state lawmaker and Erie County commissioner; Mark Poloncarz, the Erie County comptroller; and Mark Manna, a member of the Amherst Town Board.

State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs said county leaders would meet in the next week or two to finish the interview process, although he has yet to set a deadline for the final vote. Jacobs, like Israel, has realistic expectations in the special election.

“Let’s face it. This is one of the toughest Congressional seats in the country for a Democrat,” he said. “I wouldn’t go into the race with any grand expectations at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t take a very close, hard look at it.”

Democrats’ best hope might be that Republicans hurt themselves. Republican missteps in New York’s 20th and 23rd districts ­— both GOP-friendly territory — ultimately benefited Democrats in recent special elections.

Just don’t expect local Democrats to use Lee’s personal problems to their advantage.

“That may be how our friends in the other party do business,” Jacobs said. “I think that it’s not going to be the focus. Our focus will be creating jobs, things that are important to the people. That’s where the race needs to be. … The fact that a political career ended the way it did is just sad. It’s unfortunate.”

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