By Reid Wilson - 07/21/09 11:17 PM EDT
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has already taken its first shot at state Sen. Darrel Aubertine (D), launching a round of automated calls on Tuesday hitting the first-term state senator for voting in favor of new taxes in the state budget.
"National Democrats created this open-seat opportunity and have made no secret that Darrel Aubertine is their candidate, so we have a responsibility to begin informing voters about who he really is," said Paul Lindsay, an NRCC spokesman. "Before Aubertine was his party’s hand-picked nominee, he played a pivotal role in passing a reckless and painful budget that families in central and northern New York are suffering from."
Aubertine, however, has not formally declared his candidacy, and national Democrats said the NRCC is jumping the gun.
"The Republican Party of No realizes they have nothing to offer the folks of the 23rd district so they’ve resorted to attacking an unannounced candidate in a campaign that hasn't even started," said Shripal Shah, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "That’s pathetic."
McHugh, President Obama's choice to be Secretary of the Army, has not had confirmation hearings yet. Last week, he began making courtesy calls to a few members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who will question him during confirmation proceedings. But the hearings are unlikely to be scheduled until the Senate dispenses with the defense authorization bill, which is on the floor this week.
Once McHugh, the former ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, is confirmed, he will leave behind a district that went for Obama in 2008 by a narrow margin. Though Republicans have a nearly 47,000 voter registration advantage in the district, Democrats believe they have a shot at the seat. Including McHugh, the GOP only holds three of New York's Congressional districts.
Democratic chances would be far better if the party chooses Aubertine, national and local strategists say. A state senator first elected in 2008 in one of the most Republican districts in New York, Aubertine is a skilled campaigner who brings a solid political base and proven fundraising abilities to the race.
Democratic and Republican Party chairmen from the eleven counties that make up the largely rural district that borders Canada and Vermont will meet, likely next month, to choose nominees to replace McHugh once he resigns.
Other Democrats interested in the race include Michael Oot, who lost to McHugh by a nearly two-to-one margin in 2008; Dan Francis, the party's nominee against McHugh in 1994; former assistant state Attorney General John Sullivan; and former U.S. Attorney Daniel French. National party leaders, though, are likely to bring serious pressure to bear on Democratic chairmen to turn to Aubertine.
On the Republican side, state Assemblywoman Dierdre Scozzafava and Franklin County legislator Paul Maroun are the two candidates with electoral bases so far. Businessman Matthew Doheny, a political newcomer, has raised by far the most money to date.
The race for McHugh's seat has been compared to the special election to replace Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who left a similar district earlier this year when she was elevated to the upper chamber.
Gillibrand's seat was narrowly carried by Rep. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.) after he tied himself to the economic stimulus plan that moved through Congress in February. His opponent, Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R), made a point of distancing himself from national Republicans and other attack ads the NRCC ran.
Already, Doheny is copying Tedisco's playbook in a region in which the national Republican brand appears fatally damaged. When news of the anti-Aubertine calls hit, Doheny released a statement denouncing them as "counterproductive."
"I've put 5000 miles on my 1994 Ford during the last 60 days traveling the district, talking to business leaders and meeting with committee members," Doheny said in a statement released Tuesday night.
"The issues the voters are talking about are jobs, jobs and jobs. We'll have plenty of time to talk about other issues and qualifications when we get into the campaign," Doheny continued. "These negative ads are counterproductive to this process."
Gov. David Paterson (D-N.Y.) will not set a date for the special election to replace McHugh until the nine-term congressman resigns his seat.