100 Day Sprint: Measuring the political culture of the North Country

This November, we’ll get a cool new snapshot of the political culture of the North Country.

Once viewed as solidly Republican and moderately conservative, we have experienced roughly a decade of change where Democrats have staged something of an insurgency.

Whereas in the past, Democrats were only competitive in hyper-local contests — and in small town races where family name or local issues trumped party politics — we’ve seen the Democratic brand gain real currency.

I would argue that the trend began in earnest with the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton to the US Senate in November of 2000.  Clinton campaigned aggressively in the North Country and visited the region frequently.

Her organization was careful to cultivate relationships and build something of a party infrastructure in the region.  That fledgling network, combined with other factors, brought a series of other Democratic victories.

Darrel Aubertine captured a state Senate seat.  Kirsten Gillibrand won a House seat in the old 20th district, toppling veteran Republican congressman John Sweeney.

Eliot Spitzer and Barack Obama ran strong in the region in 2008 and in 2009 Democrat Bill Owens captured the 23rd district House seat, a feat that he repeated in 2010.

But in 2012, the newly formed 21st district House seat offers a much more accurate reflection of the North Country map, including some pretty conservative terrain in Washington and Saratoga counties.

And Bill Owens faces a straight-forward test in his essentially one-on-one challenge from Republican Matt Doheny.

I think it’s fair to argue that in this campaign there are no huge, hot button issues, and neither candidate is a particularly compelling figure.  There is none of the electricity of 2009 or 2010.

What’s more, Doheny and Owens are both fairly traditional moderates within their parties.  Doheny has built ties to the tea party-conservative movement only through diligent stump work, and outreach, not because they view him as a fellow traveler in the vein of Doug Hoffman.

And Bill Owens’ NRA-endorsed brand of centrism is viewed with suspicion by progressives in the region.  (If the Green Party had fielded a stronger candidate than Donald Hassig, Owens might be facing a real problem on his left flank.)

This also isn’t a big-sweep sort of year.  There’s not the “hope-change” climate of 2008, nor the “take our country back” mood of 2010.

All of which leaves us with what you might describe as a perfect laboratory test case for measuring the temperature of the North Country.

Currently, there are roughly 58,000 fewer registered Democrats in the 21st district than Republicans.  That’s a big difference.  So if this is still a bedrock GOP district, as voter enrollment suggests, we should see Doheny emerge with a significant advantage.

Even in a year when it’s hard to actually get people’s attention or turn folks out to cast their ballots, we should see a marked Republican tilt.

This is what we saw in the old NY 20 district, two years ago.  Incumbent Democrat Scott Murphy ran a strong, centrist campaign, but Republican challenger Chris Gibson blew him out of the water.

A lot of those voters who elevated Gibson to office have now been lumped into NY-21.

If, on the other hand, this is one of those parts of the country where voter registration just doesn’t mean that much anymore — where local support for figures like Gillibrand and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has blurred party loyalty — Owens should fare pretty well.

There are, of course, some big variables.  There’s a lot of campaigning still ahead and Owens or Doheny could stumble.   It will also change the tenor of things if the presidential race breaks wide open.

(A big question in November will be whether Barack Obama captures the North Country again.  If he does, Owens should be in good shape.)

My guess is that when this campaign is over, we’ll have a much betters sense for whether our region is firmly established as a purplish “anything goes” political region, or an essentially red-state bastion within New York that occasionally votes Democratic.



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6 Comments on “100 Day Sprint: Measuring the political culture of the North Country”

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  1. scratchy says:

    I really don’t see Doheny as being a moderate. On what issue does he disagree with his party? Has he ever described himself as being a moderate?

    Now, John McHugh could be described as a moderate, but Doheny is no John McHugh.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I think that quoting the Republican registration advantage is misleading because it ignores the number of unaffiliated/independent/third party registrations. Further, because so few elections were contested up here in the past there are huge numbers of RINOs – people who register Republican so that they can actually choose between candidates in a primary. There is no advantage around here in being a DINO so there aren’t many of them.

    When Hillary started coming here (and it may be Chuck Schumer who really deserves the credit) it had been a long time since North Country voters felt like the Democrats cared about them and they responded by turning out for Chuck and Hillary in substantial numbers. On one of her first visits to the region Hillary brought along Gillibrand and people found they liked her too.

    The Murphy/Gibson election happened during a wave year for Republicans. Gibson ran a very strong and disciplined campaign and Murphy hurt himself by waffling on health-care. And it was a very poor turn-out for Dems that year. Still Gibson only won by 9 or 10 points, which is a lot but if you try to make the point that the registration is 2 R to 1 D then 10 points doesn’t look so good – especially in a wave year. In reality it is a 2R to 1D to 1 independent district.

    I think it is time to bury the idea that this is a rock-ribbed Republican stronghold. This is a toss-up district.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    If you look at the history of the North Country when it comes to voting Republican, it is clear the area is Republican only because of President Lincoln.

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    If the Greens were able to actually get their act together and run a respectable campaign Owens would be in deep trouble.

  5. dbw says:

    Brian’s analysis leaves out the number of union households in the district. The big story of the 2008 and 2010 election was the shift of union households. John McHugh used to get a lot of union support that went to Owens in 2008.

  6. mervel says:

    I think he has the issue correct though. But the question has already been answered in my mind; we are purple, not red. I think we are a moderate to conservative Democratic area that will sometimes vote for a Republican.

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