Across the Northeast, GOP's Hold Lessens

Dan Maffei lost a congressional election in Upstate New York by 3,500 votes in 2006, but he is favored to win this year. Of the 24 Republican-held seats in the Northeast, at least nine could change hands.
Dan Maffei lost a congressional election in Upstate New York by 3,500 votes in 2006, but he is favored to win this year. Of the 24 Republican-held seats in the Northeast, at least nine could change hands. (By Dick Blume -- Syracuse Post-standard Via Associated Press)
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By Ben Pershing Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- When Dan Maffei tells how he decided to run for office, the former congressional press secretary recounts a casual conversation he had in 2005 with a reporter, who pointed out that New York's 25th District was the only seat in the country where Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) won in the presidential race but Democrats did not field a House candidate.

Rep. James T. Walsh (R), an affable moderate known for his earmarking prowess, was the incumbent that year. Two years later, Maffei nearly unseated the veteran Republican, losing by fewer than 3,500 votes. Now Walsh is retiring after 10 terms, and Maffei is considered the favorite over Republican Dale Sweetland, a former county legislator. So, what has changed?

"Though the area is shifting to the Democrats, it's still a very moderate area," Maffei said of the 25th, which stretches from Syracuse west along the shores of Lake Ontario to the outskirts of Rochester.

To Maffei, that failure to field a candidate in 2004 encapsulated the problem that Democrats had in Upstate New York and other regions of the Northeast; the area was ripe for the picking, but Democrats weren't trying hard enough. In towns such as DeWitt, where Maffei makes his home, voters would consistently back Democrats for president, Senate and sometimes governor, but they would still elect moderate Republicans who closely monitored constituents' moods to local offices in odd-year elections.

Now that tide is starting to turn, as Democrats have captured more down-ballot posts in the past few years, including some in DeWitt in the 2007 elections. "Suddenly this once-Republican town is voting Democratic in off years," Maffei said.

The same pattern holds in House races.

As recently as 1998, 13 of New York's 31 House districts were represented by Republicans. Today, just six of 29 seats are in the GOP column (the state lost two seats after the 2000 census), and four of those six are in danger of falling to Democrats in November.

Just west of Walsh's seat, the Buffalo-based 26th District is up for grabs with the retirement of Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R). To the south, Rep. John R. "Randy" Kuhl Jr. (R) faces a serious challenge in the 29th District. And on Staten Island -- the only New York City seat in GOP hands -- is perhaps the likeliest in the state to flip, after the retirement announcement of scandal-plagued Rep. Vito J. Fossella (R).

The demise of the GOP in New York has played out in similar fashion across the Northeast. In the 10-state band from Maryland to Maine, Republicans controlled 41 percent of House seats a decade ago. Now they hold 27 percent. In 2006 alone, the GOP lost four seats in Pennsylvania, three in New York and two each in Connecticut and New Hampshire.

Of the 24 Republican-held seats remaining in the Northeast, at least nine could change hands this year. If Rep. Christopher Shays doesn't hold on in Connecticut, New England will be without a GOP House member.

"I think the same thing you saw in the South with Democrats in the '70s and '80s, you're seeing in the Northeast now with Republicans," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. "What you've seen is that Republicans were successful in the Northeast when they were a more moderate to liberal party."

The demise of House Republicans in the region has mirrored an exodus of GOP centrists from the House. The group that represents that wing of the party, the Republican Main Street Partnership, suffered several losses in the 2006 campaign cycle, and now the 42-member group faces another slew of retirements and potential defeats.

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