The 26th district, held until recently by retired Rep. Chris Lee (R) — yes, that Chris Lee — is one of only four that President Obama lost in the entire state in 2008.
And yet, in a recent poll, Democrat Kathy Hochul is within striking distance of Republican Jane Corwin thanks in large part to Davis who is running as an independent aligned with the tea party and dumping millions of his own money into the race. Both Corwin and American Crossroads, a conservative-aligned group, are running television ads hammering Davis.
So who is he?
First and foremost, Davis is someone who has made a career — at least in recent years — of running for this seat.
This campaign is Davis’ fourth attempt to win the 26th district. He ran in 2004, 2006 and 2008 as a Democrat. In his first two bids, no other Democrat ran, and the party seemed content to let him spend his personal money on the race. In 2006, Davis came within a hair’s breadth of beating Republican Rep. Tom Reynolds and when Reynolds retired the next cycle Davis was seen as the odds-on nominee. He wound up finishing third in the primary.
After three straight losses as a Democrat, Davis courted the right — though he’s provided no roadmap to explain his shift.
After failing to win the endorsement of either the Republican Party or the Conservative Party in this special election, Davis started a ‘Tea Party’ line.
Tea party activists were miffed; Davis never talked to them or asked for their support. He just got to the Board of Elections before they did. In New York, anyone who files 3,500 signatures to get their name on the ballot can create their own party line. (In New York, candidates can run on a variety of “lines”, allowing for multiple candidates on the ballot in a general election.)
Now, neither party wants him. When he went to the Republican Party in hopes of an endorsement this year, he shocked officials with his suggestion that Hispanic farmworkers be deported and replaced with inner-city African-Americans. (“We have to put the blacks back to work. If we had less immigration, we’d have more blacks working,” an unrepentant Davis told a local paper after the event.)
While Republicans have worked to paint him as a liberal Democrat and Democrats insist he’s a Republican at heart, Davis’ ideology is too inconsistent to be readily categorized. Davis favors gun rights and abortion rights. He’s also an outspoken immigration opponent and believes Mexican immigrants will start a new civil war.
But his real issue is free trade. Now 78-years-old and a life-long resident of western New York, Davis graduated from Buffalo University with a degree in engineering. He founded a silicon carbide heating elements company, I Squared R Element, in 1964. He was a Republican until about a decade ago; that’s when the decline of American manufacturing became his overriding concern. He was kicked out of a 2003 fundraising dinner with then-Vice President Dick Cheney for raising the free trade issue. Soon after, he became a Democrat and started running for office.
Given all of that, how can Davis be competitive? (Most polls show his support level in the mid 20s.)
Money is the big reason. The founder and owner of a successful silicon carbide heating elements company, Davis has poured millions into his unsuccessful bids.
He actually got the Supreme Court to overturn the “Millionaire’s Amendment” in 2008 which relaxed campaign finance restrictions for opponents of big-spending candidates. He’s put $2.1 million into the special election campaign so far. According to Federal Election Commission reports, not a single penny has been donated to his campaign by anyone else. He paid for petition-collecters to help get his name on the ballot.
Democrats blame Davis’ wave of negative ads in the primary for taking out their preferred 2008 candidate, Iraq war veteran Jon Powers. Little known attorney Alice Kryzan won the Democratic nomination that year and lost to Lee in the general election.
Now Republicans are on the receiving end of Davis’ spending. David Bellavia, a conservative who failed to get on the ballot in the special election race, is endorsing Davis over Corwin.
If Republicans lose this race in two weeks time, expect Democrats to paint it as a referendum on the cuts to Medicare contained in the House-passed budget crafted by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. And, that will clearly be a part of the narrative.
But, Davis would share some of the credit/blame for such an outcome too — simply the latest chapter in a decidedly unpredictable political career.