Finding Sanity in a N.Y. District 3 Hours North of Trump Tower

House candidates would rather talk about issues in the 19th District

In their House race, Democrat Zephyr Teachout and Republican John Faso want to stick to the issues related to New York's 19th District. (Teachout photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images file photo; Faso photo: Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0)
In their House race, Democrat Zephyr Teachout and Republican John Faso want to stick to the issues related to New York's 19th District. (Teachout photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images file photo; Faso photo: Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0)
Posted October 18, 2016 at 5:00am

HIGHLAND, N.Y. — John Faso is an undecided voter. “I’m leaving my options open,” he explained. “I will not vote for Hillary Clinton, obviously. I will make that decision, as probably many other Americans will, on my way to the polling place.”

Normally, there is nothing wrong with being a late decider in the presidential race, other than frustrating pollsters and pundits. But Faso is the GOP nominee for the House seat being vacated by Republican Chris Gibson in New York’s 19th District. And Faso’s inability to either dump Donald Trump or stump for him is emblematic of many freeze-frame Republicans in tough down-ballot races.

On a crisp apple cider Sunday morning, near the banks of the Hudson River that bisects this sprawling mostly rural 11-county district, I asked Faso what it would take for him to vote for Trump, a candidate whose personal conduct he has condemned.

“I just want to see him focus on real issues and not on sideshow issues,” Faso said.

Needless to say, Trump is more likely to spend the next three weeks rehearsing for the role of George Washington in the road company of “Hamilton” than he is to suddenly discover his inner policy wonk.

Whenever Trump comes up, the 64-year-old Faso immediately tries pivot back to his own race.

“My focus is on the issues that are most important here,” he said. “Namely, jobs and taxes and national security. That’s what I focus on rather than things I have no control over, namely, the presidential race.”

Ignoring The Donald

But can Trump be ignored in a district that is half in the New York City media market and is only a few hours drive from Trump Tower?

Faso’s crusading Democratic opponent, Zephyr Teachout, 44, confessed to a crowd of 65 supporters at a headquarters opening in Hudson on Sunday, “I actually had a nightmare about Donald Trump last night.” Hearing a few murmurs of skepticism, she insisted, “I did. I did.”

During an interview in a nearby pizza parlor afterward, Teachout downplayed outside factors, such as her quixotic clean-government 2014 gubernatorial primary campaign against entrenched Democratic incumbent Andrew Cuomo. “My race is really about the district,” she said, echoing Faso.

The truth is that both candidates are conducting an alternate reality congressional race, largely pretending that they are running for Congress in a rational political year. During their most recent TV debate last week, Faso and Teachout spent most of their time civilly sparring over issues like property taxes, dairy farming and contamination of the water supply in Hoosick Falls with a cancer-causing chemical.

By all measures, this is a coin-flip contest. A Time Warner Cable News/Siena College poll in late September found the race knotted with Faso at 43 percent and Teachout at 42 percent.

Both candidates anticipate a long, agonizing election night, waiting for returns. Teachout calls it “the closest race in the country.” And during a Sunday fundraising walk across a Hudson River bridge to benefit ALS research, a voter asked Faso about his chances. “I’m going to win,” he said. “But it’s going to be very close.”

Even though Barack Obama carried NY-19 by 19,000 votes in 2012, Trump has been running strongly in a district that has been on a slow downward slide since the days of the New York Central Railroad and the Erie Canal. The Time Warner/Siena poll, taken before the Trump hot-mic tape was released, found the bilious billionaire leading Clinton by a 43-to-38-percent margin in the district.

Although Faso will not admit it, Trump’s lingering support, even after the latest round of scandals, undoubtedly shapes his caution about the presidential race. But there is a vast stylistic gulf between the former reality show host and the serious Faso, who spent 16 years in the state legislature before running unsuccessfully against Democrat Eliot Spitzer for governor in 2006.

Not a dirty word?

“We need to send people to Washington who want to fix problems,” said Faso, sounding like an old-fashioned northeastern Republican. “I don’t view compromise as a dirty word. I’m not interested in being a talking head on Fox and arguing with someone who is a talking head on MSNBC.”

Teachout, a former college professor and longtime advocate for campaign finance reform, is far from a generic Democrat. Not only did she win the lasting enmity of Cuomo with her 2014 race, but Teachout also bucked Clinton to endorse Bernie Sanders for president in the primaries. These days, though, she said at Sunday’s rally, “I can’t wait for Hillary Clinton to become the next president.”

Like Sanders — who appeared for her at a late September rally in the village of New Paltz — Teachout has become a master of online fundraising, taking in a hefty $1.6 million from all sources in the third quarter. Faso has raised $2.3 million for his campaign this cycle.

But in a super PAC era, the candidates themselves are bystanders in their own campaigns. Outside groups like the pro-Republican Congressional Leadership Fund as well as the NRCC and the DCCC will be the major players. As Teachout puts it, with a hint of false modesty, “They’re spending $3.3 million against little ol’ me.”

This is a district that the Democrats almost certainly have to capture to achieve their dream of winning back the House. And if they do, Teachout will become an instant liberal hero. But if Faso holds on, he will be the kind of Republican who might periodically buck the lockstep party-of-no politics of the Republican caucus.

Either way, it’s refreshing to find in NY-19 an oasis of sanity in a season of Trumpian travesty and vitriol-laced politics.