The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a 14-term Democrat from upstate New York almost lost on Tuesday

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), right, pictured in September 2013. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Betraying my prejudice upfront: I grew up in Rochester, N.Y. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D) was first elected when I was just starting to pay attention to politics, so she is implanted in my brain as "My Congress member" in the way that your first address is implanted as "My Home Address" no matter how many times you might move.

Rochester is fading. Its population in 1960 was about 318,000; by 2010, it had dropped to 207,000. Over the course of her almost 30 years in Washington, Slaughter has seen 14 percent of the city that anchors her district vanish, moving away as Kodak collapses, or moving with Xerox to Connecticut, or, sick of the Snow Belt, moving off to Arizona or wherever.

It will be 30 years in D.C. if Slaughter manages to hold on to the 651-vote margin by which she leads in her reelection bid. Even in a wave election, one wouldn't expect heavily Democratic Rochester to oust an incumbent that it's elected time and time again, but that's exactly what Slaughter faces. Here's how Rochester's Monroe County has voted in presidential races relative to the rest of the country since 1960.

But Slaughter's support has headed in a different direction, heading south even as her Democratic colleagues enjoy wide margins of victory.

That downward slide in margin of victory over the past few cycles is not what a politician wants to see. Slaughter is fading, too.

Part of it, as my colleague Aaron Blake noted several years ago, is that the latest round of redistricting made Slaughter's -- and other incumbents' -- seats much tougher to hold. Since her first election in 1986, upstate New York has gotten much more contested. On the maps below, bolder colors indicate wider margins of victory. Paler colors, like those around Slaughter's Western New York district in later years, are races that were close. (Her district, shifting from the 30th to the 28th to the 25th as the state's population has dropped, is outlined in black.)

But 2014 was particularly bad because of the mood in the state. Yes, there was a Republican wave election, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) used to explain why his goal of Democrats retaking the state senate fell short. But Cuomo was a huge problem, too. His support, after a tumultuous primary and looming questions about his behavior in office, was tepid. Which is putting it somewhat charitably. Thanks to an unmotivated Democratic electorate, Tuesday was the lowest turnout in a governor's race since the Board of Elections started keeping good statistics in the 1970s. Relative to 1994, when 5.3 million people voted statewide and 260,000 voted in Monroe County, here's how gubernatorial voting has dropped.

That low turnout -- favoring Republicans -- intersected with Slaughter's downward slide on Tuesday.

There's still a very good chance the Slaughter will win her 15th term. There's a chance that, if she does, she'll run again in 2016, in an environment that's likely to more strongly favor Democrats. She could bounce back and be in office for another decade. Even Rochester bounced back once, from a dying Erie Canal hub to the center of the photographic revolution.

But of course, that didn't last.

This post has been updated with a new vote margin from Slaughter's office.

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