At the start of the cycle, Republicans weren’t expected to pay close attention to CT-04 and NY-01, two wealthy districts that rank 17th and 21st in terms of median income among congressional districts nationwide. But perhaps the concentration of upper-income is giving the GOP confidence they can take advantage of the wealthy’s potentially growing discomfort against Democrats? After all, if they are resting their hopes on voters who leaned left last cycle now swinging to the GOP, the Northeast’s upper middle-class might be a better bet than Hispanics.
As such, we’ve been hearing quite a bit about both for months, and Republicans have now landed two credible candidates they hope will be enough to make these races competitive.
A state Senator against Himes
Let’s start with Connecticut, since this is a district we have gotten used to: Chris Shays was at the top of the Democrats’ target list for three cycles before being dislodged by Jim Himes last fall. At the end of July, Republicans blew their best shot at taking back the seat when state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said he would not run. But they will now go into 2010 with a credible shot nonetheless: State Senator Dan Debicella has just announced he will challenge Himes.
On paper, Debicella is less compelling than McKinney, who is the son of the district’s former congressman and is serving in the Senate since 1999. Debicella was first elected in 2006, has far lower name recognition and is only 34, which is not an easy age at which to win a federal race. Yet, his youth should help him mount an outsider campaign, and his degrees from Wharton and from the Harvard Business School could potentially offset inexperience charges. In 2006 and 2008, he faced competitive races in tough cycles and won by 8% and 4%, respectively, so at least he has campaign experience and knows how to run an election.
CT-04 remains a tough proposition for Republicans: They might have held the seat for decades, but it gave Barack Obama a massive 60%. Yet, the district’s demographics are not that of a typical Democratic district - the median income is far higher than that of Connecticut’s other districts - and whether Himes has to worry about re-election at all should depend on independent voters’ mood come 2010. At least, Debicella offers the GOP a chance to hope if the environment does sour for Democrats.
A political novice in Long Island
Moving to Long Island, we find another district with high median income: Alongside more modest neighborhoods, New York’s 1st District encompasses wealthy enclaves like the Hamptons. The district took a swing to the right after 9/11 and it hasn’t come back to its strongly Democratic roots: While Al Gore won the district by 8%, John Kerry narrowly lost it and Obama only prevailed by 4%.
That’s as bad a trend as Democrats will see outside of the Deep South and the Appalachians, and it puts Rep. Tim Bishop in a tricky situation. Ever since winning a tight race in the 2002 midterms, he hasn’t had much to worry about but the NRCC is feeling emboldened by what they say is local anger against Bishop’s voting ways; they point to a town hall held in June at which the congressman had to be escorted out by the police.
Frankly, a disrupted town hall might have been a compelling talking-point two months ago, but after the events of the past two weeks I think most of us will agree this says more about the right’s strategy of forcefully shutting down town halls than about Bishop’s vulnerability.
In any case, the GOP has recruited a candidate to go along its claims: Businessman Randy Altschuler jumped in the race this week. He might not have run for office before but, as a former fundraiser for John McCain, he at least has some idea of how elections work - which is more than we can say for other businessmen who suddenly take an interest in politics. For Republicans, his most compelling trait might be that he could fund his own campaign, allowing the NRCC not to have to worry about financing a candidate it’s not yet sure of.
When the environment is tough for incumbents, a businessman with no obvious qualifications for office and deep pcokets can be all it takes for a party to pick up a seat; otherwise, Altschuler will have to prove he has the necessary campaign skills, display policy positions that make him electable and hope that Bishop really is as vulnerable as the GOP believes.