Democrats believe the road back to a House majority runs through New York.
And Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle is perhaps the most vulnerable Republican freshman in a state crowded with GOP freshmen.
The New York Congresswoman has quickly become a favorite target of Democrats and their political allies, who have focused more money, manpower and negative attention on her upstate district than on almost anywhere else this cycle.
The Empire State gave Republicans six new seats last fall — the biggest single-state shift in the nation — though no race was closer than Buerkle’s 25th district contest, decided by less than 700 votes.
The race was an afterthought for Republican strategists last fall, who questioned whether a tea party darling with weak fundraising skills could knock off Rep. Dan Maffei (D) in a Democratic district. Today, those same Republicans wonder whether the 60-year-old former nurse can do it again. Two Democrats are already in the mix to challenge her, and Maffei has hinted that he wants a rematch.
“The  environment was extremely helpful,” a top Republican campaign consultant said. “It’s upstate New York. No matter how you slice or dice it, this is not evangelical Indiana or the South. It’s competitive at best and Democrat at worst. It’s going to be difficult to win.”
Buerkle’s district, which includes all of Syracuse, is one of just 14 Republican-held districts that previously supported Democratic presidential candidates in 2004 and 2008. And it’s an example of a larger problem for Republicans in 2012.
Having captured the vast majority of the nation’s swing districts during their midterm gains, Republicans must now defend their newly installed incumbents. Some, such as Buerkle, rode the tea party wave to victory but support policies that might be out of step with the majority of their districts.
That’s why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted Buerkle six times with a combination of radio ads, robocalls and Web ads. They have touched on her abortion stance and her vote for the House GOP budget plan, which would fundamentally reshape Medicare.
The Planned Parenthood debate was particularly hard on Buerkle.
Her positions on social issues flew under the radar last fall, but once in office, she supported the House Republican measure to block federal funding from the women’s health care provider that is best known for performing abortions.
Planned Parenthood has run two radio ads against Buerkle (and just seven other Republicans) in recent months, suggesting she had “betrayed” thousands of New York women. The organization also targeted the district as part of its national bus tour, attracting a rash of negative press.
Buerkle’s office has shrugged off the criticism as being about one issue — an issue that’s secondary to her focus on the nation’s fiscal problems.
“Her focus has been on her committee work, growing the economy and reducing the debt and deficit,” Buerkle spokesman Liza Lowery said, stressing that her boss has worked on bipartisan issues such as domestic violence, sexual assault and veterans’ affairs.
But the political attacks have been steady.
DCCC spokesman Josh Schwerin accused Buerkle of “pushing a radical social agenda that is out of touch with her constituents.”
“It’s no wonder Rep. Buerkle is among the top potential one-term Members of Congress,” he said.
The newly formed liberal outside group House Majority PAC also has targeted Buerkle in recent weeks, attacking her as one of 10 Republicans in a Medicare-related radio advertising blitz. Organized labor groups have been vocal opponents, most recently protesting her voting record outside a district town hall meeting.
Democrats are already lining up for the chance to take her out.
Local attorney Brianne Murphy has entered the race, and Onondaga County Legislator Tom Buckel is considering a bid. Washington Democrats see their best chance at knocking off Buerkle in her 2010 opponent, and Maffei isn’t bashful about his contemplation of a bid.
“I have received much constructive criticism and also an overwhelming amount of energy and enthusiasm toward my strong consideration of running again!” Maffei wrote in an email to supporters late last month. “There doesn’t seem to be any attempt by Ann Marie Buerkle to recognize that, while this district is one of the more moderate districts in the country, her votes and her public statements are those of a far right wing ideologue.”
Maffei’s decision is expected soon, though much depends on the ultimate shape of the 25th district, which could change significantly in the coming months through the redistricting process.
Republicans concede that Buerkle’s political leanings, combined with her reluctance to dedicate time to fundraising, could be problematic in a general election. She raised just $61,345 in the first three months of the year, and almost 90 percent of that came from political action committees, according to records filed with the Federal Election Commission.
“Socially, she’s probably a misfit with a significant part of the district,” the Republican campaign consultant said. “But fiscally and in terms of not being an insider, she’s like an A-plus. But is she going to be a good fundraiser? No, she’s not.”
Buerkle has also struggled to keep up with constituent services, an often underrated link to each Member’s community. It took at least four months for the office to fill its district case worker positions, according to Buerkle’s office. Her spokeswoman said the three-week delay in her election result last fall caused problems on a number of fronts that appear to have been resolved.
“In the past five and a half months, she has held seven town hall meetings, three tele-town halls and two online town halls,” Lowery said. “District office staff processes hundreds of cases for central New Yorkers who need assistance resolving issues with federal agencies.”
But she declined to respond to the specific policy and political attacks, leaving the National Republican Congressional Committee to speak in Buerkle’s defense.
NRCC spokesman Tory Mazzola lauded Buerkle as working to “cut wasteful spending and help reduce our nation’s massive debt” and bashed the former Congressman. He said, “If you need more proof that Washington Democrats want to make Nancy Pelosi House Speaker again, look no further than their efforts to recruit her loyal ally Dan Maffei as a candidate.”