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Posted at 5:27 PM ET, 02/17/2011

Democrats uncertain on race for Chris Lee's seat

By Rachel Weiner

Coming off of a 63-seat loss in the 2010 election, conventional wisdom would suggest that national Democrats would leap at the chance to score a quick, momentum-building victory in the Upstate New York 26th district held until recently by Rep. Chris Lee (R), now (in)famous for his shirtless Craigslist photos.

And yet, national Democrats have been largely mum about the race since Lee resigned in disgrace last week. At a press briefing Wednesday, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (a New Yorker himself) was loathe to say much of anything about the seat.

It's "not a Democratic district," Israel said, pointing out that Carl Paladino, an outspoken and gaffe-prone conservative, carried the area in his 2010 gubernatorial bid, in a race where Gov. Andrew Cuomo won with 61 percent of the vote.

(The district was far more competitive in 2008, however as Sen. John McCain won it with 52 percent of the vote; and, back then, was a target for the DCCC.)

"We will be able to make an assessment in strict consultation and collaboration with the county chairs." A DCCC representative has been interviewing potential candidates.

Local Democrats are more bullish about the party's prospects in the special election.

"Given the nature of a special election and the competitiveness that has been shown there in the past ... we can be competitive in this race with the right candidate," said Niagara County Democrats Chair Daniel Rivera.

Candidates for special elections in New York are picked by a weighted vote of the relevant party chairs -- in this case, that means Erie, Monroe, Niagara, Livingston, Orleans, Wyoming and Genesee counties.

Erie County Chair Len Lenihan says Democrats already have a strong candidate: Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul. "She's eager to make a go for it, if all hands are on on deck," he said. "If anyone wants to buy in, she really has got a record of delivering. It'll be a tough race, but under the circumstances we can make a real go for it." While he acknowledged that the seat "trends Republican," he argued that "we know how to make it a race."

Hochul herself has said that she thinks national Democrats will ultimately decide to jump in. "I'm a big Notre Dame football fan, and I know the strategy of coaches who like to downplay expectations," she told a local paper. "I suspect that's what's going on here."

Monroe Country Democratic Chair Joe Morelle was a little more hesitant, but he agreed that a win was possible. "It's not one in which we will be the favorite," he said. "It tends to be a sort of conservative area ...Having said that, in this region we've won a number of seats where you wouldn't normally think we'd compete."

Aside from Hochul, Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz, State Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, and Amherst councilman Mark Manna have been mentioned as Democratic candidates, Jon Powers, an Iraq War veteran who lost the 2008 primary, was floated -- but he said on his Facebook page last night that he has "decided to continue my service to the Army."

On the Republican side, the favorite is Assemblywoman Jane Corwin. Former Rep. Tom Reynolds, who held the 26th from 1998 to 2008 and spent two elections as the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is supporting her.

For Democrats, the ultimate decision about how seriously to play in the 26th will likely come down to two factors: money and redistricting.

The DCCC, despite collecting more than $4 million in January, has more than $20 million in debt left over from the 2010 cycle. Paying down that debt is likely to be priority number one, and given the cost of special elections the party may decide that a long shot chance at winning in the 26th isn't worth it -- literally.

The other thing to consider is that the 26th district may well not even exist in the 2012 election. The Empire State is slated to lose two seats in the nationwide reapportionment and redistricting process and Upstate New York is a major target due to its population losses.

Anyone -- Republican or Democrat -- who wins the 26th district then will have to immediately begin to fight an uphill battle on why the seat shouldn't be carved up to protect more senior members in the area.

Special elections are, well, special. Predicting who might vote is a guessing game -- at best -- which makes decisions about whether and where to spend time and money extremely difficult.

Democrats are in the midst of trying to make those calculations now. We should know in a few weeks how they decided.

By Rachel Weiner  | February 17, 2011; 5:27 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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