Niagara Gazette

May 23, 2011

Supporters likely to get a call — or three — for NY-26 race today

By Eric DuVall
Niagara Gazette

NIAGARA FALLS — Who would have thought that an illicit and ill-advised romantic advance on the Internet would have set into motion the campaign that concludes today?

But in the months since former Rep. Chris Lee resigned in that now-infamous Craigslist scandal, the race that has shaped up for suburban Western New Yorkers to select his replacement carries immense political implications for the local and national folks, alike.

The three-way race between Republican Jane Corwin, Democrat Kathy Hochul and independent candidate Jack Davis began as a sure-thing for Corwin, political prognosticators said. The overwhelmingly conservative 26th district has elected just one Democrat in the last 60 years and produced GOP stars with national scope including Jack Kemp and Tom Reynolds.

But, if she can win the ground war, Hochul could capture one of the safest Republican seats in the nation.

It’s a big “if.”

Polls over the weekend have shown Hochul with a slight lead. A nonpartisan survey found her with a 4 percentage point lead over Corwin with Davis, running on a self-created Tea Party line, trailing badly. A poll commissioned by Democratic interests showed Hochul up by 6 points.

None of that will mean anything, though, if she can’t get those supporters to the polls — or if Corwin’s edge in campaign funds can help her run a more effective effort to get out the vote.

The final push

All three campaigns held high-visibility rallies over the weekend. Volunteers from the nation’s capital have come to bolster both Hochul and Corwin in their all-out effort to contact supporters in the campaign’s final hours.

So it’s no small irony that a campaign that’s cost millions might come down to the simplest question of all: Did you remember to vote?

Voters are trained to key in on the political races in the fall. A May special election, with just one race on the ballot, will certainly draw a smaller turnout.

In a race that’s as close as this one, each campaign realizes the importance of every single vote.

“Seeing the 500 or so volunteers we had here this weekend and the 100 or so (Monday) and through (today) we’re feeling very good,” Matt Harakal, Corwin’s spokesman said.

He said the Republican effort will be an “aggressive operation” that has been months in the making.

“We started ID’ing people back in March,” he said. “We feel (on election day) that will all play out” in Corwin’s favor.

Hochul’s spokesman Fabien Levy said the state Democratic Party is running a “full field program” on Hochul’s behalf. The result is hundreds of volunteers “knocking on thousands and thousands of doors and making thousands and thousands of phone calls.”

The Davis campaign over the weekend focused on the eastern end of the 26th district and the Rochester suburb of Greece, a major battleground for all three candidates. Curtis Ellis, Davis’ campaign manager, boasted knocking on 30,000 doors across the district over the weekend with 800 volunteers seeking to equal the efforts of both major party machines.

Ellis said his candidate holds an advantage because, unlike Corwin and Hochul who did not have to canvass the district to get signatures on nominating petitions, the Davis campaign has already made at least one in-person contact with 12,000 voters.

“Twelve thousand is better than seven,” Ellis said, referencing the seven county party chairs who nominated Hochul and Corwin.

Davis said the campaign is now focused solely on reminding those who have committed to Davis to get to the polls.

“It’s easy to say (to a pollster) you’re going to vote, but on a beautiful spring day it’s easy to forget,” Ellis said. “The people who are voting for Jack aren’t going to forget. We’re going to remind them.”

Outside influence

Much like many of the commercials that flooded airwaves from outside groups in Washington, there are volunteers who have traveled to Western New York to give their preferred candidate a boost.

Corwin’s campaign said two busloads of volunteers, about 150 people in total, from Washington D.C. came up over the weekend to pound the pavement and make calls.

Harakal described the group as “young Republicans that are concerned about the way our country is headed.”

“They came in from out of town understanding the importance.”

Levy said the Hochul campaign did have some people driving up from the nation’s capital and across New York, as well.

“There were random people who got in their cars and drove up,” he said. A Buffalo News reporter at Hochul’s campaign headquarters reported meeting several members of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s office on hand to help out.

Levy took a shot at the buses from Washington for Corwin’s get-out-the-vote effort.

“She has to rely on people outside the district to help her out,” Levy said. “We’re relying on people (who live) in the district to get us to the finish line.”

And the Corwin campaign took one last chance to remind voters that Hochul herself does not live in the district, making her the most prominent nonvoting person in the race. (Laws governing special elections in New York do not require candidates to live in the district.)

The Davis spokesman eyed up both campaigns for their outside help, calling his candidate the only real grassroots effort in the campaign.

“Jack is not taking money from outside interests or special interests that are paying for Jane’s campaign or Kathy’s campaign and basically trying to buy the seat,” Ellis said.

An enthusiasm gap?

Much was made over the weekend about the final Siena College poll, which showed Hochul holding the slimmest of leads — one-tenth of a percent outside the poll’s margin of error. But internal polling questions suggest some other dynamics could be at play.

More of Hochul’s supporters — 77 percent, in fact — said they are “absolutely certain” of their decision than are Corwin’s supporters, 66 percent of who shared the same conviction.

Hochul’s spokesman hedged on whether that statistic provided a crucial boost in turnout efforts.

“Whether there’s an advantage, I wouldn’t say yes or no,” Levy said. “This district does have a Republican edge to it. Every vote is going to count.”

There are 30,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the 26th.

Harakal dismissed the poll’s finding, pointing to what he said was a larger turnout for Corwin’s rallies over the weekend than for Hochul. “I put a lot more stake in that,” Harakal said.

What drives voters?

Despite a narrative in media coverage that the issue most driving voters in this election is a Republican plan Corwin supports to eventually privatize Medicare, at least one veteran political observer said this race isn’t likely to turn on any actual issue.

Mike Haselswerdt, a professor of political science at Canisius College, said low turnout elections like this one are won and lost in a campaign’s organization and turnout efforts.

Haselswerdt estimated a turnout of less than 25 percent of the total electorate, meaning those voting are generally hard-core party supporters unlikely to be swayed by what the other party’s candidate says about an issue.

“It’s about organization and just getting the base out,” he said. “You’re not turning anyone’s votes around when you’re talking about base voters.”

Despite the race having drawn more than its share of national coverage, Haselswerdt cautioned against reading too much into the results in New York’s 26th for national elections next November.

“It depends on who wins, how people are going to read this,” he said. “Cooler heads are going to say this was a three person race and the Democrat got the max of what they were going to get” while the Republican vote split between Corwin and Davis.

But, even in deep red country, the specter of a Democrat winning is going to generate some national headlines, especially on the Medicare front. But is that the issue driving turnout, or is it just plain old party politics?

At this point, the only people who can say for sure are the ones who show up to vote.