NY Rep. Hochul looks for middle ground as Democrat in conservative district

In Rep. Kathy Hochul’s (D-N.Y.) front office hangs a picture of the conservative-leaning 26th district of New York, the area she wrestled away from Republicans in a special election a year ago. 

A new print will be in order if she wins again in November.

Hochul was redistricted into the more conservative 27th district this cycle. But her crossover appeal in the special election, her independent voting record and familiar territory in her new district all give Hochul confidence going into November. 

“I have some inherent advantages that aren’t clear when people just look at it on paper,” Hochul said about her chances to retain her seat this year.

Hochul became famous in Democratic circles when she won a special election in one of the most conservative districts in New York last May, partly by tying her opponent to Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Defense: Latest on spending fight - House passes stopgap with defense money while Senate nears two-year budget deal | Pentagon planning military parade for Trump | Afghan war will cost B in 2018 House passes stopgap spending measure with defense money MORE’s (R-Wis.) budget proposal. 

She picked up the seat after Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) resigned in early 2011 when a shirtless photo that the married congressman had sent to a woman he met on Craigslist went public. 

Hochul won with a plurality of the vote, surpassing Republican Jane Corwin 47 percent to 43 percent. A Tea Party candidate also siphoned off 9 percent of the vote.

The district contained a Republican enrollment advantage, and she previously cited the win as her highest political achievement.

The 27th district, the area she was redistricted into, proves tougher. There are 188,500 Republicans, 141,000 Democrats and 22,000 independents registered in her newly redrawn district, according to The New York Times. 

Yet Hochul prides herself on her independence. 

She said it was common to receive Republican endorsements in her previous local elections. And this year, she has sided with the GOP on a number of key votes in the House. 

“I don’t look at things as black and white,” Hochul told The Hill. “And I think that allows me to find the middle, where this country needs to be.” 

Hochul has bucked her party on a number of votes in her one-year term. 

Unlike most Democrats in the House, she voted for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, for the Keystone XL pipeline and for a GOP business tax cut. She also voted to pay for student loans with offsets to the healthcare law, to hold Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderHolder redistricting group targets GOP control in states IG poised to reignite war over FBI’s Clinton case Justice Dept sidelines office dedicated to expanding legal aid to poor citizens: report MORE in contempt, and she voted against an amendment to hold Defense Department spending to previously agreed-upon levels.

Though she voted against repealing the healthcare law, she has opposed certain portions of the bill. 

On her website, she touts her votes to repeal the CLASS Act, the Independent Payment Advisory Board and, most recently, the medical-device tax. 

Hochul said her previous experience as a Capitol Hill staffer informs the way she works to find common ground. She was legal counsel and a legislative assistant in both the House and Senate, first for former Rep. John LaFalce (D-N.Y.) then for former Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

Her time in Moynihan’s office gives her hope for comity in Congress again.

“That era may have been more statesman-like, but if we have people who subscribe to those same values — that this country is greater than all of us and our individual political interests — we can do a lot more,” she said. 

Hochul says she learned bipartisanship from Moynihan, while former Rep. LaFalce showed her how to win as a Democrat in a conservative-leaning House district.

“He taught me it was all about the constituent service,” she said. 

Though her district has changed, Hochul has been elected at the local level in parts of the new territory. 

The newly drawn area includes most of the 26th and expands it to include parts of Niagara, Orleans, Ontario and Erie counties. The largest expansion comes in Erie County, south of Buffalo.

Hochul was county clerk in Erie as recently as 2010, where she received nearly 80 percent of the vote. It includes her hometown of Hamburg, where she served on the town board for 13 years.  

“The new territory (has) Republicans, independents and Democrats that have pulled the lever for me before,” Hochul said. “People down here [in D.C.] think they are new to me. They are not new to me.”

But her Republican opponent, Chris Collins, is also a former Erie County executive. He held a 2-point lead over Hochul in an August poll. 

As of the end of the second quarter, Hochul held a massive fundraising advantage over Collins. She raised $516,718 in the last quarter and has $1.2 million cash on hand. 

Collins raised $10,500 over the second quarter. A spokesman for his campaign told The Buffalo News he opted to fund the GOP primary himself, which covered most of the second quarter. 

In the special election last year, Hochul benefited handsomely from her party. Former President Clinton recorded a robo-call for her. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) helped with fundraising solicitations. And the Democratic super-PAC, House Majority PAC, spent $400,000 on the race. 

Hochul doesn’t want the spotlight again.

“So the people were helpful and I appreciate that, but we never brought in physical surrogates,” Hochul said. “I didn’t use it then. I’m not asking for it now.” 

Both sides see this as a high priority race again. House Majority PAC has already reserved funds for the race. And The National Republican Congressional Committee has marked Collins as a Young Gun, a designation given to the group’s top-tier contenders this fall.

But Hochul said the election will come down to her ability to connect with voters.

“It is about me demonstrating my hard work to the constituents,” she said.