Rangel staying above anti-incumbent fray?

Greg Nash

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) might be the only incumbent in the country whose age and decades of service are more assets in his primary election than liabilities.

His main primary challenger, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat, has argued in his hard-fought rematch that, as the district has changed, Rangel has failed to change with it. The Latino lawmaker came close to winning the Democratic nod in 2012, but he hopes now voters think it really is time for someone new.

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Indeed, the demographics of the redrawn district favor Espaillat. It has transformed from majority African-American to now, slightly majority Hispanic. The national mood, too, which has caused incumbents to fall to a throw-the-bums-out mentality, building from frustration with economic stagnation and persistent congressional gridlock, are also in Espaillat’s favor. 

But polling has suggested Rangel is one member voters might not yet want to throw out. 

What scant polling there has been of the race has shown him holding a steady lead, with the last survey, out from NY1/The New York Times/Siena College last month, giving him a 9-point lead over Espaillat in the four-way race. 

It’s not as though voters in the district don’t share the nationwide hunger for change; a plurality of respondents in that poll, or 41 percent, said they were most looking for a candidate who would bring about change. 

But unlike elsewhere in the nation, voters are also pretty happy with the way things are going in America. Fifty-seven percent said the nation’s on the right track.

That’s why, Siena College Pollster Steven Greenberg said, the anti-incumbent sentiment doesn’t appear to be hurting Rangel.

“You tend to see the, ‘We need fresh blood, we need new people’ sentiment building, but when voters think things are going well, that certainly favors the incumbent,” he said.

Greenberg said that, in fact, voters seem to understand the benefits Rangel’s seniority delivers to them.

“This district is an economically tough district. I think the voters are looking for somebody who can help deliver in the district, and I think by and large, voters are sophisticated enough to know that Congress is very much a seniority-based entity,” he said.

Espaillat has tried to counter that by noting that Rangel has said he’ll retire at the end of his next term, but the immediate advantages to sending Rangel back to Washington might still outweigh the long-term loss.

Though Rangel’s experience and 22-term tenure might not be the liability it would be elsewhere, it is by no means a deciding asset.

He’s also taken some controversial votes over the years that have given his opponents fodder for attacks focused on the No. 1 issue for voters in the district — jobs and the economy. Espaillat has criticized him for voting for measures he said would ultimately water down Wall Street reform. But Rangel has hit back, hammering Espaillat for voting to repeal a transportation tax that cost New York City millions of dollars.

Espaillat lost to Rangel by a little more than 1,000 votes in 2012, and his team believes that he has a better shot at the seat now because he’s had a longer time to campaign and introduce himself to voters, and because the district’s Hispanic population has been growing.

“This time around, he’s really focused on being a uniter, and on the three main issues: immigration reform, job creation and housing reform. The district knows him better, and this time, he’s got a great team,” Espaillat spokeswoman Chelsea Connor said.

Still, in the expensive New York media market, much of that introduction has been made the old-fashioned way: through knocking on doors, shaking hands, making phone calls and sending out mailers.

That’s perhaps why the Siena poll showed that 43 percent of respondents said they still didn’t know enough about Espaillat to have an opinion on him.

And the Hispanic population in the district isn’t a monolithic voting bloc. Espaillat is Dominican, but Rangel is part Puerto Rican. Another candidate in the race, community organizer Yolanda Garcia, could also break off some Hispanic votes from both of them. 

Still, Rangel could face some backlash from the Hispanic community for charging Espaillat was running largely on his Dominican heritage and not much else.

“What the heck has he done, besides saying he’s a Dominican?” Rangel said during a heated debate earlier this month.

Espaillat hit back, telling Rangel that he was “deeply disappointed” in him and, “to come here and spew division in front of the city and the state is not becoming of you or your title as a congressman.”

The clash was not unusual for the race, which has had combative undertones at times. Connor said that was because the race is personal for Espaillat.

“For Adriano, the race is about issues. Congressman Rangel has been making it about race,” she said.

Another advantage Espaillat has now: some powerful surrogates out on the trail for him, having peeled off a handful of high-profile local endorsements from Rangel.

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito endorsed Espaillat this time, as has Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. 

Connor said the local politicians put the muscle of their political machines behind Espaillat, in contrast to the big-name endorsements Rangel has picked up.

“Rangel’s endorsers are either in Washington or in name only,” she said.

While they might not be boots on the ground for him, Rangel’s endorsers are far bigger names: Former President Bill Clinton, New York Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

More problematic for Rangel than those Democrats who have weighed in on the race might be those who’ve stayed silent. Though Rangel’s reportedly reached out to him for support, the Rev. Al Sharpton is sitting the primary out, running the risk that another black candidate in the race, the Rev. Michael Walrond of the Bronx, will siphon off African-American voters from Rangel.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has also been silent on the race, even after Rangel endorsed his opponent in de Blasio’s Democratic primary.

And the biggest Democratic name of all hasn’t come to Rangel’s aid. President Obama has long had a frosty relationship with Rangel, even before the congressman endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, and Obama is staying silent.

Still, with none of them actively working against him, Rangel’s team is confident heading into Election Day.

But both his and Espaillat’s teams caution that the June primary is unpredictable. It’s only the second time New York has held its primaries so early, and expected low turnout gives the advantage to any candidate who can get their voters to the polls. 

“The candidates don’t seem to be ideologically all that different, so I think it really comes down to the campaigns and which campaign is able to identify their voters and get their voters out to the polls,” Sienna College’s Greenberg said.