In politics, there are two kinds of winners, those with coattails and those without coattails.
Congressman Bill Owens should know. In 2009, he fought his way into office riding the still-powerful wave of Barack Obama’s early popularity.
The Democrat from Plattsburgh has since established himself on his own merits as the most powerful politician in the North Country and looks very tough to beat in 2014.
But a question remains: What does Owens’ success mean for the region’s broader Democratic Party? Can he carry others along in his wake?
Is he the start of something, or an outlier?
First a little history.
I think it’s fair to argue that the groundwork for Owens’ success was laid by other prominent Democrats, from Hillary Clinton’s US Senate run, to the brief flash of popularity enjoyed by Eliot Spitzer.
By the time Owens appeared on the scene, the Republican-leaning mood in the North Country had clearly changed.
And thanks in large part to former New York Democratic Party chair June O’Neill, from St. Lawerence County, the party’s grassroots strength had grown just enough to capitalize.
Yet serious questions remain about the ability of Democrats to mature into a true regional powerhouse, capable of competing race-by-race and contest-by-contest.
Yes, there are some prominent Democrats working at the local level, including Essex County board of supervisors chair Randy Douglas and Saranac Lake Mayor Clyde Rabideau.
But the party has yet to develop the kind of talent and infrastructure that will allow them to fight for bigger Assembly and state Senate seats.
Those are the kinds of victories that Democrats need if they’re going to play on par with the GOP.
It was a major stumble last year when Democrats failed to front a top-tier candidate for the Assembly seat being vacated by Teresa Sayward — but truth be told, it wasn’t an unexpected stumble.
In far too many races, Democrats just aren’t recruiting and supporting the kind of political talent that can match the GOP’s bench.
Even in urban elections — in Watertown, Plattsburgh and Glens Falls — Democrats aren’t competing effectively for the top seats that would seem like viable targets.
Which brings us back to Bill Owens.
He may be a lock in the next election cycle and, indeed, he’ll be hard to beat as long as he chooses to keep running. But right now, it’s hard to find Democrats coming up through the ranks who would be a plausible next-contender for a job like his.
One part of the problem may be that Owens has tacked so hard to the middle and worked so hard to win support from Republican moderates that he may just not be able to develop real partisan coattails.
For the moment, this is all good news for Republicans.
They may have lost the big prize in North Country politics. But for the moment at least, the GOP still dominates almost every other regional or state-level office.