National parties already gearing up for Massa seat

CORNING, N.Y. -- The race between Corning Mayor Tom Reed (R) and first-term Congressman Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) in New York’s 29th congressional district has just started, but already the rhetoric sounds like the homestretch of a campaign.

While the candidates themselves have stayed cordial toward one another, the state and national parties are in full attack mode.

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Both Democrats and Republicans anticipate a closely watched and tight race.  In 2006, Massa lost to Republican Rep. Randy Kuhl by a slim margin, then ran again in 2008, winning with 51 percent of the vote. The district went modestly for John McCain in 2008 and George W. Bush in both 2004 and 2000.

National Republicans have already signaled that Massa is one of their main targets in 2010. They want to push back against the idea that they are a dying breed in the Northeast, especially after an expensive and disappointing special election in another upstate New York district in March.

As in the district lost earlier this year, Republicans have lost ground in Massa’s district but still hold a 50,000-voter registration advantage, and their strategists see an opening.

Said one Republican strategist: “This is going to be the most competitive race in New York, and we view it as very winnable.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are playing up Republicans’ woes in the region.

“With recruits like these, it’s no wonder there are only three Republicans left in the entire New York congressional delegation,” New York State Democratic Party Chair June O’Neill said shortly after Reed’s announcement.

Reed announced his candidacy Wednesday in front of Corning’s iconic clock tower, touting his roots in the town, his military family, his record as mayor and a desire to move past partisan politics.

“There will be times when we disagree, but I will stand for what I believe is right even when no one is looking,” he said.

Both candidates recognize that, perhaps more than in other districts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be front and center in the voters’ minds. Massa, who has been a staunch opponent of the war since he first ran for the seat, was recently one of just three vulnerable Democrats to vote against the war supplemental bill because it did not have a “100 percent exit strategy for Iraq.”

Interestingly, Reed broke with Republicans in Congress on the issue, saying clearly that he “would have voted for the supplemental bill.”

Although Republicans uniformly voted against the supplemental, Reed said, “Once the troops are committed, you can’t turn your backs on them. I’m not going to leverage cash and funding to get a plan. I stand with the troops to the end.”

When it was noted that he would have been the only Republican to vote for the bill, Reed responded: “I will stand with the troops, bottom line. It’s what I believe.”

Massa conducted back-to-back town hall meetings in the district on Tuesday, as Congress recessed for Independence Day.

When asked about Reed’s candidacy, Massa said, “I welcome it. That’s what democracy is all about. Participation in the process is what I wore a uniform to defend. So if somebody wants to run against me, I welcome that.”

Reed expects the upcoming election to revolve around economic policy, specifically President Obama’s stimulus bill, which Massa supported. Although some Democratic observers point to this year’s special election as a good indicator of the public’s perception of the stimulus, Reed insists that this election will be different.

“People have had more time to see how it is all playing out and will see that it was an irresponsible government intervention in the marketplace,” he said.

Massa, who views himself as a fiscal moderate, is quick to defend the stimulus package. He points to the dire need for it and will be able claim that the package brought over $15 million to the district.

When discussing his vote for the stimulus, Massa notes that he voted against the bank and housing bailouts as well as the legislative branch appropriations bill.

Massa is a member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's (DCCC) Frontline program, which protects vulnerable Democrats with resources, including financial support.

In his successful 2008 race, Massa raised over $2.1 million. Reed, who is a member of the National Republican Campaign Committee’s (NRCC) “Young Guns” program, believes that he needs to raise between $2 million and $2.5 million to have a competitive race.

Money will certainly be an important factor. In the last 10 years, the candidate who spent more money won the congressional race in this district, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

-- Aaron Blake contributed to this report.