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Hochul’s Election Prompts Redistricting Angst

New York Democrats are now faced with the consequences of winning.

Rep.-elect Kathy Hochul’s special election victory this week casts a cloud of uncertainty over a high-stakes redistricting process that could ultimately endanger her Democratic neighbors.

Members are reluctant to speak publicly about their fears, but they are consumed by the redistricting implications, according to a high-level Hill staffer. The only thing clear at this point, however, is that the Empire State will lose two Congressional seats in 2012 thanks to population losses.

And while Washington Democrats celebrated Hochul’s improbable victory in a heavily conservative district, the consensus about New York’s redistricting winners and losers has been turned on its head. Downstate Democrats, who were bracing for the likelihood that they would lose a seat, are now looking to western New York for a reprieve.

Hochul’s seat now becomes a potential target, but so do the seats of her neighbors to the west, Democratic Reps. Brian Higgins and Louise Slaughter.

“Waking up this morning, I think that Higgins and Slaughter have a lot to be nervous about,” the high-level staffer told Roll Call on Wednesday. “You’d have to be Leonardo da Vinci to draw a map that potentially gives all three a chance to run without a primary.”

There is time, of course, for the outlook to change again, given that the redistricting process likely won’t be finalized until next spring.

The new map will be drawn by the state Legislature, in which Republicans and Democrats each control one chamber. That sets up the expectation that the two districts eliminated will include one from each party. And given that Democrats largely occupy the urban centers in Manhattan and the southern part of the state and Republicans have better numbers upstate, Members have assumed the Democratic seat would disappear from downstate and the Republican from upstate.

But that was before Hochul’s Tuesday victory.

“There’s no doubt that this screws up the conventional wisdom that existed until yesterday,” said a top Democratic operative in New York with connections to several Members.

It’s not that the expectation for Republicans will change dramatically, according to the operative. Just two Republicans serve downstate: the well-connected Rep. Peter King and freshman Rep. Michael Grimm, who represents a Staten Island district packed with Republicans. Neither Congressman is thought to be in danger.

“The question is where does the Democrat come from,” the operative said. “The conventional wisdom that the Democrat was going to come from downstate — this changes that.”

Neither Higgins’ nor Slaughter’s office responded to a request for comment. When asked over the course of the special election about redistricting implications, the Hochul campaign consistently insisted it was focused on winning the race at hand, deflecting the suggestion that she would become a redistricting victim should she prevail.

But officials within the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee privately offered a different perspective.

The DCCC was initially reluctant to dedicate resources to Tuesday’s contest, largely because of the concern that the seat would disappear in 2012. But as the race tightened and the DCCC was persuaded to play in the special election, committee officials suggested a Hochul victory — even if her seat were eliminated — could take redistricting pressure off Democrats elsewhere.

Serious questions remain, however, over whether state lawmakers would approve a new map that eliminates two upstate seats. There are both political complications and practical — the population losses that are forcing the new map are not unique to the upstate region.

The Republican Member thought to be in the most trouble, 25th district freshman Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, could actually benefit if she absorbs some of the GOP voters in Hochul’s district. A Republican consultant with strong connections to Albany and Washington said most view Buerkle as “really having no chance of winning, except that now they could give all those NY-26 Republicans to Buerkle.”

“And then she sticks around, which is the equivalent of a win, because no one expects us to hold the 25th,” the consultant added.

But there was more speculation than answers in the hours immediately after Hochul shocked the nation by winning. There were also multiple rumors of Democratic retirements, which would certainly take pressure off other Democrats fearing for their political lives.

“Everyone’s spinning their wheels right now,” the Republican consultant said. “I do think that in some ways, one of those three Democrats will not be coming back … but no one knows anything yet.”

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