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A New York Republican in Trump Country Fights for Survival

Rep. Claudia Tenney is among the most vulnerable incumbents

New York Rep. Claudia Tenney speaks at a GOP picnic in Homer on Sunday. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)
New York Rep. Claudia Tenney speaks at a GOP picnic in Homer on Sunday. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)

HOMER, N.Y. — Claudia Tenney had a dire message for her fellow Republicans. 

“Today, the chaos of the Democratic Party is about taking away your rights, whether it’s Second Amendment, First Amendment, you name it,” the freshman congresswoman said at a Cortland County GOP picnic here Sunday. “It’s about creating chaos.”

That Tenney finds herself needing to encourage GOP voters to turn out might come as a surprise in an upstate New York district President Donald Trump carried by 16 points in 2016. But she sees Republicans as less motivated in a midterm year, and Democrats are excited about their nominee, state Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi. 

The race presents a test case for both parties. Will Trump’s appeal translate to House Republicans facing tough re-elections? And can Democrats can win back working-class voters who abandoned the party in 2016?

“New York 22 shouldn’t really be in play by the numbers, but it is,” said Jeb Fain, a spokesman for House Majority PAC, which supports House Democrats and is spending in the district. “This is a real race.”

Watch: Democrats See Opportunity in NY District Trump Won by 16 Points

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A Toss-up?

Of the 16 House races currently rated Toss-ups by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, Trump won Tenney’s 22nd District with the largest share of the vote — nearly 55 percent.

But Tenney, a former state lawmaker, has still been viewed as vulnerable. She won her seat two years ago by 5 points with just 46 percent of the vote. (A right-leaning third party candidate took 12 percent.)

Republicans make up 39 percent of registered voters in the district, while 32 percent are Democrats and 21 percent are not registered with any party. Though Trump won handily, Mitt Romney barely won the district in 2012.

Tenney has aligned herself with Trump, who came to the district in August for a fundraiser. She hopes he will return for a rally.

Brindisi attributes the closeness of the race to voters’ frustration with partisanship.

“Most people in this district, they don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” he said after rallying canvassers in Clinton on Thursday. “What they care about is when the election is over, that you start governing and you do your best job trying to work with both sides of the aisle.”

Patricia Dawson, a 42-year-old Cortland resident who attended the GOP picnic Sunday, was very concerned about Tenney losing. She feared Brindisi’s early campaign ads, one of which featured his children, were winning over undecided voters.

“I do marketing, and I just kept watching, and was like, ‘Dang it, those are good ads,’” she said.

Democrats have touted Brindisi as a strong challenger with his own brand as an independent legislator in a conservative-leaning district. He did not face a primary challenge, and his impressive fundraising has allowed him to take to the airwaves early.

Brindisi has outraised Tenney in multiple fundraising quarters, and had $1.4 million in the bank at June 30 compared to Tenney’s $1 million. Tenney noted she has typically been outspent in previous campaigns, but has won anyway by focusing on grass-roots efforts. 

Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi is running against GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)
State Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, Tenney’s Democratic opponent, canvasses in Clinton on Thursday. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)

Who’s independent?

Both candidates are fighting for swing voters by asserting their independence from their parties. 

Tenney said she has never been the preferred choice of the GOP establishment. This year, her local Republican committee in Oneida County endorsed her for the first time in her career.

“It’s because they know that I am in this to stand up for the people,” she said of their reluctance to endorse her in the past. “We’ve always got a lot of grass-roots support.”

Tenney’s sometimes blunt delivery has appealed to voters like Jim Denkenberger, a 74-year-old retired land surveyor in Truxton. He sported a red “Make America Great Again” hat at the GOP picnic, and Tenney had signed the brim.

“I thought Claudia was the one when she was running against Republicans,” Denkenberger said, referring to her unsuccessful 2014 primary challenge to GOP Rep. Richard Hanna. “She speaks out. She speaks her mind and I agree with her.”

That frankness that has earned Tenney national attention is something you won’t find in Democratic ads, including her recent assertion that many mass murderers are Democrats.

Supporters at the GOP picnic said such statements, which they believe are often taken out of context, wouldn’t be a problem for her re-election. Democrats say that with the local media coverage her remarks receive, focusing on issues that affect voters is the right strategy for their ads.

Recent GOP attack ads have been trying to paint Brindisi as beholden his party’s leaders, especially Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who is not very popular in the district.

Brindisi said he has stood up to the governor. He held a mock “state of the State” address last year to accuse Cuomo of ignoring the area. (Tenney has pointed out that the governor has helped Brindisi raise money for his campaign.)

The attacks are part of an onslaught in ads from outside groups on both sides. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, with more than $4 million in outside spending so far, the 22nd is the second most expensive House race to date.

Brindisi pushed back when addressing volunteers Thursday, saying, “You’ve seen how personal it’s getting. For me that is not a sign of a winning campaign. That is indicative that they’re scared.”

The attacks fly

His comment appeared to be a veiled reference to a Tenney campaign memo dominating recent local news coverage.

The memo sent to Tenney’s campaign staff cautioned against walking alone at night and staying alert about strange vehicles. The memo, first reported by the New York Post, said Brindisi’s family “may return to what they know — violence and intimidation.” His father was a lawyer for people connected to organized crime several years ago.

Tenney said in an interview that a campaign consultant developed the memo, and she was not aware of it until shortly before discussing it with the Post.

She went on to say she has “never seen the kind of anger and a kind of oppressive tactics on the other side,” pointing to nasty social media comments expressing hope that her son, a Marine, is killed, a tracker following her everywhere, and strange cars regularly parked outside of her house.

Brindisi said the memo showed “who Claudia Tenney really is,” and that she was looking to divide people in the district.

Health care has also emerged as a top issue in the race. Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to House GOP leadership, attacked Brindisi in a television ad for his votes for a bill that would have established a state-run health program in New York. 

Brindisi said in a statement that the vote was “a message to the federal government to do something about rising premiums.” He said he does not support the so-called Medicare-for-All legislation proposed in the House. 

Democrats believe the focus on “kitchen table” and local issues — like high cable bills — is how they will win this race. Outside groups highlight Tenney’s health care and tax votes in ads, and accuse her of being beholden to special interests.

But not all Democrats are bullish about their chances of defeating Tenney. Like Mary, who was heading to her car a short walk away from the GOP picnic.

“I want to be optimistic, but I’m not,” she said. “I don’t know if these people are all going to get out and vote.”

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