One of the most dramatic moments on election night 2012 was Matt Doheny’s rapid and final concession speech. He announced that he was stepping away from politics and he questioned whether the NY-21 House district is winnable for Republicans.
“If you look at the results today, I don’t know how Republican this 21st Congressional District is anymore,” Doheny said. “You’ll see with the President Obama numbers. It was very challenging.”
There’s no doubt that GOP leaders in the North Country have faced a headwind the last few years, with a Conservative Party insurrection on their right and a resurgent Democratic Party on their left.
But it’s worth noting that Owens looked very vulnerable in 2009, 2010 and again in 2012. Doheny came darned close each time.
So it’s not like the 21st district is dyed indigo. In theory, this should be a highly competitive district going forward. The problem, put simply, is recruiting.
In a quarter century of watching politics, I’ve concluded that half of winning an election is finding the right candidate, with the right history and the right talent on the stump.
In 2009, Bill Owens represented a coup for Democrats. They fielded a guy who could stay in the game, offering a plausible alternative in a district that had always — and I mean always — gone Republican.
Owens kept it close, stayed on message, and was able to capitalize on conservative disarray. He was the right candidate for the right race.
So the question now is whether Republicans can steal from that play book. Can they find a man or a woman with the resume, the right political stripes, and the patience to go hard at Owens?
First, let’s talk about the hurdles to pulling that off.
The biggest challenge is that so many moderate Republicans have either sided with Owens or left the GOP altogether.
Doheny is out. Big names like Teresa Sayward and Dede Scozzafava have been sidelined by tea party venom, triggered in large part by their moderate social views.
So who does that leave on the bench?
One of the big names in North Country politics, Republican state Senator Joe Griffo, lives outside the newly redrawn 21st district and would have to relocate to take on a risky race.
State Senator Patty Ritchie? She’s popular in her district but lacks a regional profile that would help her to compete in the sprawling geography of the 21st.
State Senator Betty Little? She seems very comfortable and satisfied with her influence in Albany, especially given the more productive climate in the state capital.
Then there are the mayors. Watertown’s Jeff Graham has a great political mind, but he seems happy in his role as a blogger and an occasional gadfly.
Plattsburgh’s Donald Kasprzak looks on paper like a great Republican challenger, but it would be a high-risk venture indeed for one son of Plattsburgh to go up against another.
Finally, there’s Doug Hoffman, the Lake Placid accountant who became a tea party icon in 2009 and 2010. Could he return for another swing at Owens? Everyone I talk to — including tea partiers — believes that that moment has passed.
Which leaves me with just one top-tier name on my back-of-the-napkin list: Queensbury Assemblyman Dan Stec.
Stec is brand new in regional politics, having just stepped up to the legislature from his role as Queensbury town supervisor, but he’s already well known and popular in much of the eastern side of NY21.
His politics are what you might call moderately conservative, which seems just about spot-on for this district. And he would almost certainly win a lot of votes in the population-rich Glens Falls area.
But here again, there are hurdles.
It’s hard to imagine Stec pivoting immediately and beginning another campaign for higher office. There is a rhythm to politics and for Stec to spend his first term in the Assembly campaigning for the House might not scan well.
So this is the first nut Republicans will have to crack if they hope to keep Bill Owens scrambling. They need a great candidate and they need one fairly fast.
The guy (or gal) who wants to bring a serious challenge to Owens will have to start raising (a lot of) money and courting support from county leaders this year — probably in the next six months.
So here’s my prediction: If the GOP does bring a serious fight to the Democrats in NY21 next year — and I’m not entirely sure they will pull that off — the candidate will be someone new, a business leader or a non-traditional candidate.
It will be someone in the mold of Owens himself (who was a businessman when he was recruited by the Democrats) or Chris Gibson, the Army officer-turned-congressman who toppled Democrats in the Hudson River valley.
It will be someone talented enough, fresh enough and interesting enough to raise a ton of cash and keep the race close, hoping that Owens will stumble or the political mood will shift to give the GOP a shot.
What do you think? Any promising Republicans out there in the region who I’ve overlooked? Anyone you think would make a great challenger to Owens?
Comments welcome below.
UPDATE: Chris Morris at the Adirondack Daily Enterprise forwarded to me this twitter exchange from election night 2012, when politics-watchers were already speculating on 2014@wdtpolitics @OliverBarie Betty Little has the resume, but I think she stays in the state Legislature until she retires.And a few minutes later, Brian Amaral:And then my response:
@OliverBarie @wdtpolitics who knows what Dan Stec will do – he’s young enough, and could be ready to make the leap in two years