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Ratings Change: New York’s 21st District

New York Rep. Bill Owens’ retirement gives Republicans another good opportunity to take over a Democratic seat, if they don’t get in their own way. Some GOP strategists may still have nightmares about the special election in this region more than four years ago, but the 21st District might be coming open at just the right time for Republicans to take it back.

Owens was elected in a competitive special election in 2009 (in what was then the 23rd District) when President Barack Obama appointed then-Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., to be secretary of the Army.

The race turned into one of the GOP’s most famous special election debacles. The establishment got behind moderate state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, but conservatives supported unknown accountant Doug Hoffman, who ran on the Conservative line even after he lost the Republican nomination to Scozzafava. Owens won with 48 percent, Hoffman received 46 percent, and Scozzafava received nearly 6 percent, even though she dropped out of the race days before the election and endorsed Owens.

In 2010, Owens was elected to a full term, but squeaked out a 47.5 percent to 46.4 percent victory over Republican Matt Doheny. But the party was still divided, as Hoffman ran again on the Conservative Party line, drawing 6 percent.

In 2012, in the renumbered 21st District, Owens defeated Doheny 50 percent to 48 percent. This time, Doheny was on the Conservative line. A Green party candidate received 2 percent.

Democrats rightfully point out that Obama won the district by 6 points in 2008 and 2012, with 53 percent and 52 percent, respectively. But President George W. Bush carried the 21st District, 52 percent to 46 percent, in his re-election effort and the recent presidential numbers mask the large number of Republicans elected at the lower level in the region.

Republicans’ chance to take over the district hinges on their ability to stay unified. And that, as always, is a question mark. But it’s important to remember that the local endorsement process is well under way, and Elise Stefanik has a head start against any Republicans who might consider getting into the race now that Owens is retiring.

The Saratoga County Republican Party endorsed Stefanik on Saturday. Of course it’s just one of the dozen counties that cover the expansive district, but Stefanik’s early campaign effort shouldn’t be discounted. The county chairmen are scheduled to meet on Feb. 5 to try and come up with a consensus candidate.

Meanwhile, Democrats seem likely to look for someone in the mold of Owens when he ran in the special election. He was a fairly blank slate who Democratic strategists turned into a job creator to take advantage of the Republican infighting.

But holding this seat will be difficult for Democrats in the midterm elections. We’re changing our Rothenberg Political Report/CQ Roll Call rating of New York’s 21st District to Tossup from Democrat Favored.

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