Candidates line up to replace McHugh

New York Democrats appear to have their top choice on the list of candidates to replace Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.).

State Sen. Darrel Aubertine (D) seems poised to declare his interest in the contest, according to reports from New York. The first-term Democrat who won a predominantly Republican seat in 2008 has reportedly begun telling elected officials in New York he will run.

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But he will not be the only candidate Democratic county party chairmen — who get to pick the nominee in advance of a special election — have to choose from. The chairmen announced early Monday they would extend the deadline to apply for consideration to Thursday, thanks to “overwhelming interest.”

After the Thursday deadline passes, the 11 county party chairmen will meet to pick a candidate. National Democrats will likely pressure the chairmen to pick Aubertine, whom they believe would be best able to steal the seat.

Other candidates interested in taking a shot include Michael Oot, the party’s nominee in 2008; Dan Francis, who challenged McHugh in 1994; former assistant New York Attorney General John Sullivan; and former U.S. Attorney Daniel French.

Meanwhile, nine Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination for the seat. (Like the Democrats, the GOP chairmen pick their party’s candidate.) Assemblywoman Dierdre Scozzafava (R), Franklin County legislator Paul Maroun (R) and Alexandria Bay businessman Matthew Doheny are seen as leading candidates for the nod.

The eventual nominees will square off in a district that is split between Democrats and Republicans. Though the GOP has a voter registration advantage in the district of about 47,000, President Obama won the seat by a 52-47 percent margin.

“It’s a district Republicans should win, but everyone said that about [Gillibrand’s] district,” said Lawrence Levy, director of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. “It’s one more last chance for the Republicans in a state that’s becoming less and less hospitable to the party, even in Republican areas.”

“The ideological center of the district is not way, way to the right,” said Kristi Andersen, a political scientist at Syracuse University. The seat has long been a Republican bastion, drawn around Lake Erie to encompass as much rural territory as possible.

“This has been gerrymandered, essentially, by Republicans to skip all the cities,” Andersen added.

McHugh, who has served in Congress for nine terms, has never had trouble carrying the district; he has always won at least 61 percent of the vote. Earlier this year, Obama tapped McHugh, until then the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, to serve as secretary of the Army.

McHugh has not resigned, and the Senate Armed Services Committee has yet to schedule his confirmation hearings, thanks to the defense appropriations measure the committee is currently dealing with. The date of the special election won’t be set until McHugh leaves office.

But the race will be seen as another test pitting Obama’s agenda against a Republican Party that has lost ground in New York and the Northeast.

Earlier this year, Rep. Scott Murphy (D) narrowly won a congressional seat vacated when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) was appointed to the upper chamber. Murphy’s district lies adjacent to McHugh’s, and the freshman Democrat won despite a 70,000-voter registration disadvantage, begging inevitable comparisons.

Levy noted Murphy’s district has some New York City suburbs in the southern reaches, while McHugh’s is entirely rural mixed in with some Albany suburbs.

“McHugh’s district is more winnable for Republicans,” Levy said. And if the GOP loses: “It goes beyond ideology to just basic competence of running a race and picking out a candidate that resonates.”

Aubertine, elected in a bitterly fought state House race last year, is a tested campaigner, something Democrats have lacked in races against McHugh. But his race could have driven up his negative numbers as well.

Still, Andersen said, Aubertine’s path to victory lies in duplicating Murphy’s success. Murphy outperformed in northern counties in his district, which are largely rural. If Aubertine can perform well in the district’s rural counties, he will have a leg up on whichever candidate Republicans pick.

And Aubertine could rely on one strategy Murphy made use of effectively in his own race: tying himself to national Democrats. During the run-up to Murphy’s win in early March, he made his support for the economic stimulus package a cornerstone of his candidacy.

The race will be the latest harbinger of the GOP’s chances in the Northeast, as well. Where Republicans once roamed freely, Democrats now control all but a handful of seats. McHugh’s departure will leave the Empire State with just two Republican congressmen — Reps. Pete King on Long Island and Chris Lee in western New York.

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Not a single Republican holds a House seat in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine. And with Sen. Judd Gregg’s (R-N.H.) retirement, the GOP is in danger of losing one of the three Senate seats they hold along the Eastern seaboard from Virginia to Maine.

The Republican brand remains poisonous enough in the Northeast that at least some politicians are running away from their own party. Murphy’s opponent, Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R), actively distanced himself from the national party and publicly feuded with the National Republican Congressional Committee.

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