By Aaron Blake - 06/02/09 07:19 PM EDT
President Obama on Tuesday announced that he would nominate Republican Rep. John McHugh to be the next secretary of the Army, paving the way for a third Republican in Obama’s administration and another competitive New York special election.
McHugh’s nomination came as a surprise to most who were watching the situation. The focus in recent weeks had been on other candidates.
“He hasn’t agreed with every decision my administration has made,” Obama said in announcing the nomination. “But he brings patriotism and a pragmatism that has won him respect on both sides of the aisle.”
To say nothing of McHugh’s qualifications, his appointment could pay political dividends for Democrats.
They have targeted McHugh with little success in the past, but Obama carried his district with 52 percent of the vote last year. Now, with McHugh likely to leave an open seat in the coming months, Democrats feel strongly about their ability to snatch the seat from the Republicans.
In a memo released Tuesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) attributed the White House’s move to electoral politics.
“There is no doubt that White House Chief of Staff and former [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] Chairman Rahm Emanuel was well aware of the political ramifications surrounding this selection when this plan was hatched,” the memo states. “The party boss in the West Wing saw a political opportunity, and he seized on it.”
McHugh’s is the third such strategic nomination Obama has made.
The appointment of Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) as Commerce secretary, which wound up falling apart, would have removed a strong incumbent and left an open seat (though Gregg announced his retirement anyway after withdrawing his nomination). And Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s (R) nomination as ambassador to China earlier this month effectively removes him as a potential 2012 GOP challenger to Obama.
McHugh would also join Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former GOP congressman, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Bush appointee, in Obama’s administration.
Depending on when McHugh is confirmed and vacates his seat, a special election will likely be set for later this year. That special election can be held either 30-40 days after Gov. David Paterson (D) declares it, or Nov. 3 — the date of the regularly scheduled 2009 election.
A spokeswoman for McHugh, Stephanie Valle, said the congressman “fully intends to remain in Congress until he is sworn in.”
Within hours of McHugh’s nomination, potential candidates began emerging on both sides of the aisle.
On the Republican side, they included Assemblyman Will Barclay, Assemblywoman Deidre Scozzafava, McHugh Chief of Staff Robert Taub, former state Sen. Jim Wright and businessmen Terry Gach and Michael Joyce.
The Democratic list is shorter: state Sen. Darrel Aubertine, Assemblywoman Addie Russell and lawyer Dan French.
Aubertine is an early favorite and didn’t immediately dismiss the possibility. He could, however, have a hard time running after winning a valuable state Senate seat in a special election just last year.
Both sides offered warnings that the race would be difficult and are downplaying expectations.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said in an interview with ABC that the Republican infrastructure in the area would make things difficult, but that the race is winnable.
“As we saw in New York-20, we can compete in those districts,” he said.
While a special election in McHugh’s district would likely be just as competitive, there are several notable differences.
Bordering Canada along the northern part of the state, McHugh’s district is highly rural — the biggest in the state and one of the biggest in the country. Unlike Murphy’s neighboring upstate district in the east, it doesn’t incorporate the New York City media market, making it a relatively cheap district to play in.
While Democrats had been pursuing the seat as one of many carried by Obama, they admit that a vacancy forces them to scrap their game plan and start over.
Indeed, the news surprised nearly everyone involved — including, apparently, McHugh. The congressman submitted an op-ed to The Hill last Thursday (it ran the day he was nominated) that discussed how the Republican Party can regain its role as the superior party on national security — hardly the right message for a man about to receive a nomination from a Democratic president.
Many on Capitol Hill had their eyes fixed on another candidate, Arnold Punaro, who headed the Commission on the National Guard and Reserve. But Punaro was slated to face some serious questions and criticism over the role he played at defense contractor SAIC. SAIC has a large stake in the Army’s modernization program, known as the Future Combat Systems.
McHugh, meanwhile, comes with accolades and is seen as having an easy confirmation process.
He would take on the leadership of the Army at a time when the service faces a tough time due to multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. But McHugh is well-versed in personnel issues; he chaired the House Armed Services subcommittee with focus on personnel when Republicans had the majority in the House.
His New York district includes Fort Drum, the home of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. McHugh also serves on the Board of Visitors for the United States Military Academy at West Point.
If confirmed, McHugh will play a role in the overhaul of the Pentagon’s procurement practices. Legislation that he helped write passed Congress last month at the urging of the White House and Defense Secretary Gates.
Roxana Tiron and Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.