Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly reported the size of New York's 20th Congressional District. The district is approximately 5,500 square miles.

GOP Resting Hopes on Normally Conservative Upstate N.Y. for House Election, but Area Has Been Defying Political Trends

Republicans are courting independents as they pursue the Upstate New York House seat vacated by Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to the Senate.
Republicans are courting independents as they pursue the Upstate New York House seat vacated by Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to the Senate. (By Kathy Willens -- Associated Press)

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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009

HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. -- For the Republican Party, the long road to a comeback winds through the hills, small towns and dairy farms of Upstate New York and runs smack through such places as the Halftime Sports Bar and Grill, where Mark Hansen was recently nursing an afternoon beer.

Hansen, 44, is a registered independent, though his parents are Democrats and he has brothers who are "die-hard Republican" members of the National Rifle Association. He is worried about the area's faltering economy, and ticks off the names of all the factories that have closed in recent years.

Hansen likes President Obama so far. "I think he's doing a good job. He's quick on his feet," he said. And while he is critical of the bank bailout money that went to corporate bonuses and chief executives who fly on private jets, Hansen is hopeful that the just-passed economic stimulus plan can jolt the economy here. "I think it's a good idea," he said, "but there's got to be more watchdogging."

Winning over independents such as Hansen is crucial to the two candidates who will vie in the March 31 special election for the 20th District congressional seat, vacated last month when Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the Senate.

This region, mostly surrounding Albany, should be about as favorable terrain for a comeback as the Republicans could hope for. There are about 70,000 more registered Republicans in the district than Democrats -- and just as many registered independents as Democrats. The congressional seat had been in GOP hands for decades, until Gillibrand scored an upset victory here in 2006, when Democrats regained control of Congress. She won as a conservative Democrat who said her family kept two guns under the bed, and she received a perfect rating from the NRA.

But this generally conservative, gun-loving district, filled with hunters and sportsmen, lately has been defying past trends. Gillibrand was handily reelected in November, and Obama beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) here in the presidential election. Hillary Rodham Clinton also did well here in her Senate campaigns.

And this year, the Republicans are dealing with two other factors that scramble the traditional calculus: Obama's popularity, and the economic stimulus bill, which many people are hoping will bring money and jobs.

Republicans have placed their comeback hopes on James Tedisco, one of the most familiar faces in the area; he is the minority leader in the state assembly and was first elected to the legislature in 1982.

Tedisco gained national prominence by helping defeat then-Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's plan to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. He also was the first politician to publicly call on Spitzer to resign or face impeachment when he became ensnared in a prostitution scandal.

The Democrats have selected first-time candidate Scott Murphy, a businessman and venture capitalist who moved to the area 13 years ago to be near his wife's family. He gained political experience working for the governor in Missouri. Like Gillibrand, he calls himself a strong supporter of gun rights.

While they crisscross the huge district -- which covers about 55,000 square miles -- Murphy has been touting his support of the Obama stimulus plan, and hammering Tedisco for declining to say whether he would have joined House Republicans who voted unanimously against it.

"If I'd been there, I would have voted for it," Murphy said during a visit to a Hoosick factory that manufactures energy-saving insulating window panels. "It provides middle-class tax cuts -- we desperately need that."


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