Dems' unknown pick for Owens seat could boost GOP

Left with few options and little time after Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.) announced his surprise retirement, district Democrats picked a political unknown to defend the competitive seat on Wednesday night.

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Local leaders maintain they're optimistic about the chances of Aaron Woolf, a documentary filmmaker and food store owner all 12 county party chairmen unanimously chose as Democrats' standard-bearer. They say Woolf, a resident of Elizabethtown, N.Y., has a strong connection to the district and a “commanding presence” that will suit him well campaigning across the expansive district.

But with a political neophyte who splits his time between Brooklyn and the district as the Democratic pick in a highly competitive open seat, Republicans are even more optimistic about picking up a district that's vexed them for years.

Still, Democrats' waning prospects could cause the GOP side to become more crowded, too.

Democrats admit they were caught off-guard by Owens’s decision, and that fewer candidates than they had hoped had put their hats in the ring. Former Rep. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.) passed on running, as did former Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, the GOP's controversial 2009 special election pick who's since become a Democrat.

“We interviewed not as many as we originally had hoped,” said Sheila Comar, chairwoman of the Washington County Democratic Committee and a spokeswoman for the county Democratic officials who chose Woolf. “We had more people scheduled for interviews than those who actually showed up.”

According to a local reporter, two other candidates were considered, but only one was ultimately interviewed along with Woolf.

Scozzafava withdrew her name from consideration before the vetting process was over, and Murphy decided against it shortly after he indicated an interest in the race.

Republicans have a top-tier candidate in former George W. Bush official Elise Stefanik, who entered the race before Owens announced his retirement and has coalesced Republican support behind her.

But Republicans have speculated that the Woolf pick could embolden Matt Doheny, the self-funding Republican who ran two unsuccessful races against Owens and has signaled interest in running again. Doheny released an internal poll earlier this month showing him with a significant lead over Stefanik in a primary, likely due to his name ID from his past two runs. 

One national Republican said the prospect of another Doheny campaign concerns the party.

“Elise Stefanik would probably be the best candidate at this point because Democrats would be able to attack Doheny with the same line of attacks they used the last time he ran,” the Republican said.

Doheny was dogged by attacks on his wealth and scrutiny over his personal life.

Comar said the short time to choose a candidate — Democrats wanted to pick one fast, to allow for time to gather signatures to get them on the ballot — left a thin bench.

“We’re here after two weeks of considering, these other [Republicans] have been thinking about it for months,” she said. “We’re not on an equal playing field. Thirty days versus six months.”

Multiple Democrats told The Hill they had never heard of or met Woolf before he was picked by the county chairmen.

“We know Aaron but we know Aaron from what we have on file. Having heard him do the presentation and met him and talked to him ... in person he comes across so much stronger,” Comar said.

State assemblywoman Addie Russell, who considered a run but opted out before being interviewed, had high praise for the candidate — but admitted she had never met him, and was basing her opinion off of what other colleagues had said.

“He seems to be an exciting candidate for us, one who is in it for all the right reasons: He’s concerned about the area and wants to do what he can to improve it,” she said. “I’m excited about his candidacy and think he’ll be a breath of fresh air.”

Woolf has declined interviews and was silent until Thursday afternoon, when he issued a statement through a spokesman in which he declared that he’s “committed to ensuring our kids have access to a quality education and will work to improve and enhance our region's infrastructure so our local business can grow and our economy can thrive.”

Since his selection, reporters searching for more details on the mysterious Democrat have uncovered a video of Woolf addressing a green group on the importance of sustainable local agriculture, as well as an apparent personal connection he has with the lead singer of the psychedelic jam band Phish.

He also owns a food store in Brooklyn, N.Y., called Urban Rustic that sells exclusively local foods.

Republicans are excited about the prospect of running against a candidate they believe is a bad fit for the district. Owens, they point out, was unique — his military background and centrist Democratic record helped him connect with the swing district, which narrowly went for Obama the last two cycles and is home to a large military base.

And because Woolf splits his time between Brooklyn and Elizabethtown, his candidacy may neutralize any carpetbagging attacks Democrats were hoping to use against Stefanik.

Two Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee representatives — DCCC Northeastern political director Rebecca Pearcey and the committee’s campaign and candidate recruitment director, Ian Russell — were in attendance at the vetting meeting Wednesday, but the DCCC was silent on the pick Wednesday night. It’s unclear whether he’ll have committee support.

While Democrats don’t want to cede the seat to Republicans, there’s a sense that their money may be better spent on other races where they have strong recruits tackling open seats or vulnerable Republicans.

Still, one national Democratic operative suggested Woolf could still put up a respectable challenge.

“He looks like a strong candidate with a lot of fundraising potential who has been active in the community,” the operative said.

One a local Democratic strategist admitted outright that Scozzafava would have been the best option for the seat, noting her initial run as a Republican and then endorsement of Owens in 2009, made her unique.

“Dede would have been it,” the strategist said. “She has such a great story, she has such strong connections to labor.”

The problem, Democrats admitted, was that few people actually wanted to run.  

Scozzafava currently has a position in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) administration, which sources close to her say she didn’t want to give up.

Russell, the state assemblywoman, took her name out of the running, she said, to focus on a run for reelection and her family.

“I made the decision that I would run for reelection in my assembly district because I’ve got a lot of projects that I want to finish back here,” she said.

Woolf, however, may face a primary — former state Sen. Darrel Aubertine is reportedly considering running anyway.

Democrats know that a seat in Congress isn’t the most attractive job these days, and a campaign ultimately may be more trouble than its worth.

Still, they’re pledging not to give up the fight just yet. As early as Thursday, the contours of the narrative they’ll build were beginning to take shape: A race pitting a hometown outsider versus the pick of the Washington establishment.

Lynne Boecher, the Warren County Democratic Party chairwoman, emphasized that the panel did go through a painstaking process to decide on their nominee, and whittled their options down from more than a dozen initially.

But she admitted that, ultimately, some of their pick came down to luck.

“We’re damn lucky that he wants to do it. But he very honestly brings a wonderful resume and an approach that will follow what Bill Owens has put forth so positively,” she said.