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Could a Blue Wave Drown New York Republicans, Again?

Democrats are targeting all nine GOP-held seats in Empire State this cycle

GOP Rep. John J. Faso talks to a constituent at a senior picnic in Poughquag, NY. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)
GOP Rep. John J. Faso talks to a constituent at a senior picnic in Poughquag, NY. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)

POUGHQUAG, N.Y. — Rep. John J. Faso describes himself as a “pragmatic conservative” who can work across the aisle to get things done.

“I don’t want to go to Washington just to be part of some chorus appearing on TV, on cable news, talking about ideological divisions,” the New York Republican said in an interview here last month after meeting with seniors.

Campaigning in his district, Faso, who’s in his first term representing the Hudson Valley-based 19th District, stressed his work to address the opioid crisis, his support for proposals by the Problem Solvers Caucus, and his high bipartisan ranking.

President Donald Trump carried his district by 7 points in 2016. But even though Faso has tried to separate himself from the polarized national environment, as things stand, it looks like he could lose to Democratic lawyer Antonio Delgado next month. 

And he’s not the only Empire State Republican in trouble. 

Fellow upstate Rep. Claudia Tenney has also been consistently ranked among the most vulnerable incumbents running for re-election. Democrats are targeting all nine GOP-held seats in the state: six upstate, one on Staten Island and two on Long Island. And the potential for a wave election weighs on many Republican minds — less than a decade after the last Democratic wave nearly wiped out the state’s GOP House delegation.  

ICYMI: This New York District Is the Race to Watch for Democrats in the Trump Era

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Swing voters

Not all nine GOP districts in New York are the same, of course. 

The 27th District in Western New York, represented by GOP Rep. Chris Collins, is the most Republican, the only one to back the GOP presidential nominee by double digits the last three elections. 

Trump carried eight of the nine districts, but six of them backed President Barack Obama in 2012: those held by Faso; Reps. Elise Stefanik and John Katko upstate; Reps. Lee Zeldin and Peter T. King on Long Island; and Rep. Dan Donovan on Staten Island. Obama also narrowly lost the upstate districts now represented by Tenney and Rep. Tom Reed

Katko’s Syracuse-anchored district was the only one that didn’t flip to Trump in 2016. 

“In swing districts, you have to really appeal to moderates, independents and — this is the tricky part for New York Republicans — get out that base vote,” said Susan Del Percio, a New York GOP strategist. She said finding that balance is difficult given Trump’s unpopularity throughout the state.

That could sometimes mean bucking your own party, and the nine New York Republicans vary when it comes to voting with party priorities.

Collins is the only one of the nine whose average party unity score, as calculated by CQ Vote Watch, ranks above the current House GOP average. The party unity score evaluates how often members vote with their own party when a majority of Democrats split from a majority of Republicans.

Some of them bucked the party on key votes. Five joined other Republicans from high-tax states in voting against the GOP tax overhaul last year because it rolled back the deduction for state and local taxes. Katko and Donovan voted against the GOP bill to repeal much of the 2010 health care law.

The nine lawmakers have generally supported Trump’s priorities in Congress. Katko, King and Zeldin rank below the typical GOP lawmaker score for supporting the president, while Collins, the first sitting House member to endorse Trump, scored the highest at 100 percent. 

“I think New York Republicans tend to still be moderate, center-right, whereas the party overall is right,” said former GOP Rep. James T. Walsh, who represented an earlier version of Katko’s district.

Katko and Stefanik are co-chairs of the moderate Tuesday Group. Reed is a co-chairman of the the Problem Solvers Caucus. 

Those who voted for the tax and health care bills have come under attack from Democrats, who’ve launched television ads casting those votes as evidence that they are beholden to special interests instead of their constituents.

Potential wipeout?

New York hasn’t been insulated from past wave elections, and it wasn’t that long ago when the number of its Republican House delegation dwindled to two.

Only three Republicans won their races in 2008, a banner year for Democrats, who won 26 House seats in New York. The GOP lost another colleague in 2009 when Rep. John M. McHugh resigned to become Army secretary, and Democrat Bill Owens won an upset special election for his seat.

Through the 2010 and 2014 GOP waves (and redistricting, which eliminated two House seats), Republicans won back seven more seats to arrive at the nine currently held.

Seven of the nine are currently favored to win their races, according to Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. The exceptions are Faso and Tenney, both of whom face formidable Democratic challengers. Inside Elections rates both contests Tilts Democratic. 

Collins finds himself in the next most competitive race, even though Trump’s victory margin here was his highest in the state. Collins’ re-election is now in play following his indictment for insider trading. He faces Grand Island Town Supervisor Nate McMurray in a Leans Republican race.

Although Hillary Clinton won Katko’s seat, Republicans regard the two-term lawmaker as one of their stronger incumbents, arguing that he’s been able to craft his own brand, especially by emphasizing his work on the opioid crisis.

Katko faces college professor Dana Balter, who announced last week she had raised $1.5 million in the most recent fundraising quarter. Inside Elections rates the race Likely Republican. Donovan, who faces Army veteran Max Rose, is also in a Likely Republican race.

The other four — Zeldin, Stefanik, Reed and King — are all in races rated Solid Republican.

Internal strife

While some of these Republicans may survive their races this year, they could face another dilemma as their own party moves further to the right.

At a candidate forum with Faso and Delgado in Kingston last month, Katie, a self-described moderate who declined to give her last name, said she was vehemently opposed to Trump. She had originally wanted to vote for a Democrat this year, but was leaning toward supporting Faso after the forum.

She lamented that moderates in the party “seem to be so quiet” since Trump took office, adding that it was difficult to talk publicly about her moderate Republican leanings in today’s polarized environment.

Asked if the GOP will continue to have room for moderate members, Walsh said, “I remember a lot of questions like this after we went down to two [in the delegation] … It’s impossible to predict,” he said. 

It is possible that Republican lawamkers could see more pushback from the party base if they continue to break with Trump. 

Victoria Lewis, a 62-year-old retired teacher from North Syracuse, attended a GOP event for Tenney in Homer last month, even though Katko is her congressman. Lewis said she will vote for Katko because he is a Republican, but she wished he was more supportive of the president. 

While all nine New York Republicans emerged from the primary season unscathed, Lewis suggested the more moderate ones may not have much time left in Congress.

“I think they’re hopefully going to come to a point where [if] they’re not supporting, vocally, our president, then we’ll vote in people who are,” she said.

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