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Can NY Democrats like Bill Owens (Plattsburgh) and Scott Murphy (Glens Falls) hang on in this year's political climate?  (File photos)
Can NY Democrats like Bill Owens (Plattsburgh) and Scott Murphy (Glens Falls) hang on in this year's political climate? (File photos)

In North Country skirmishes, Republicans battle for a New York comeback

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Republicans are expected to dominate this November's mid-term elections. But to win a majority in the House, they'll likely need to capture at least a handful of Democratic seats in states like New York, where the GOPs track record has been dismal.

Republican leaders in New York think they have a very real shot at a comeback. They're targeting five conservative-leaning districts, including three here in the North Country.

As Brian Mann reports, Democrats are scrambling to stem the tide.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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New York used to be surprisingly fertile territory for the GOP.   But beginning in 2004, the state became a kind of Bermuda triangle for Republicans.

House seats that were GOP strongholds for decades fell off the map one after another.

Last November, Conservative Doug Hoffman conceding defeat at the end of last year’s special election.

"We stood up against two major parties that had a lot of money," Hoffman said.

In that race, Bill Owens was the first Democrat since the Civil War to win the 23rd district seat in northern New York.

Owens stood this summer on the shore of Lake Champlain, unveiling a harbor project paid for with the Federal stimulus program he voted for.

"We’re repairing something that was extremely old, a potential hazard," he said, "and it’s been done in a way that took proper advantage of the stimulus dollars."

Owens acknowledges that the political mood in the country has changed since last November when he won a special election here.

But he says voters in his district are still more interested in local, bread-and-butter issues like this project.

"No one asks me about the macro issues, they ask about the micro issues.  How is this affecting me, how is that affecting me, what can you do to help with this?"

But in many of New York's most competitive Upstate districts, including the 23rd, Republicans still hold a sizable voter enrollment advantage.

"The GOP considers this their ground still," says Jimmy Vielkind, a political reporter with the Albany Times-Union newspaper.

He says the Democratic surge in New York, which started about six years ago, was driven in part by temporary factors, including anger toward George W. Bush and the soaring popularity of Barack Obama.

"We have the first election in a while in which their doesn't seem to be an intervening circumstance," he says.

Vielkind thinks the mood in New York's more rural and suburban districts has shifted back toward the GOP.

Former Army colonel Chris Gibson is one of a new slate of stronger, better-funded candidates recruited this year by the GOP.

He's running in the 20th House district and says people here are ready for a change.

"So what we want to target is taxes, regulations and health care costs," Gibson says. 

"So that's the first thing we need to do is get the economy going with regulatory relief and repealing and replacing the health care bill.

Democrats including Long Island congressman Steve Israel acknowledge that Republicans are re-energized.

"Look, there's no question that we're in a tough environment," he sayus.

But Israel says his party still has a powerful grassroots machine, including labor unions and fundraising networks, built up over the last half-decade.

 "Throughout New York our candidates have a significant advantage in fundraising, a significant advantage in their door-to-door canvasting, and a significant advantage because the Republicans are so divided," he argued.

Indeed, Democrat Scott Murphy in the 20th district has a huge cash advantage over Chris Gibson, and has been blanketing the airwaves with ads.

Democrats have also been scrambling to carve out a more centrist position, hoping to soften conservative ire.

In the 24th district, which includes Old Forge, incumbent Democrat Mike Arcuri voted against president Obama’s healthcare bill. 

He was also one of the first Democrats in the country to openly oppose construction of the mosque proposed near Ground Zero.  Here is is speaking on the Capital Pressroom program on public radio earlier this month.

"You know, my decision, if I had to make it, I would be sensitive to the victims," Arcuri said.

But Arcuri may be the most vulnerable North Country Democrat, facing a well-funded challene from businessman Richard Hanna.

"This community gave me opportunity," Hanna said in his most recent campaign ad.  "What we're leaving our children is crushing debt."

 Despite a lot of national momentum, Republicans here have been plagued by some nasty internal battles.

Conservative Doug Hoffman emerged last year as a national tea party leader when he defeated the Republican candidate in the special election.

He's running again in the 23rd House district, but he sparked fresh anger among GOP leaders by announcing that he’ll campaign as a third-party conservative if he loses tomorrow’s Republican primary.

"People think that I'm the spoiler because I say I'm not going to get out of the race," Hoffman countered.  

"But people that get on the Conservative line have to stay on the conservative line once they take it."

Still, Hoffman’s fundraising has lagged badly and his Republican opponent in tomorrow’s primary is Matt Doheny, who insists that he has the only real shot at taking back the 23rd district seat.

"Last time out, [Hoffman] failed," Doheny argued.  "And he's not going to be able to do it this time."

Conservatives are also considering a potentially divisive third party challenge in a House race on Long Island.

Despite those hurdles, Republicans have a strong shot at winning at least one new seat in New York, in the western district once held by Democrat Eric Massa.

Massa resigned following a scandal last March.

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