How Competitive is NY18 Without Sean Maloney? | National | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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How Competitive is NY18 Without Sean Maloney? 

The popular Hudson Valley congressman is running for state attorney general. With polls showing him running strong, it's worth asking what happens to his congressional race.

click to enlarge Maloney holds a "running townhall" in the Upper West Side as part of his campaign for Attorney General. - ANDREW SOLENDER
  • Andrew Solender
  • Maloney holds a "running townhall" in the Upper West Side as part of his campaign for Attorney General.

The Hudson Valley is in the electoral spotlight this season. New York’s 19th Congressional District is at the epicenter of an effort by national Democrats to retake the House of Representatives, the Republican nominee for Governor is Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, and two Hudson Valley residents are running for State Attorney General. One of those residents is facing tough questions from constituents and voters over what he’s giving up to run for higher office.

That is Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, who represents New York’s 18th district, which covers Orange County and areas between northern Westchester and Poughkeepsie. (Full disclosure: I worked for Maloney several years ago.) Then there’s Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham law professor turned politician who challenged Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary before moving to the Hudson Valley to run for Congress in 2016. She lost both races.

Also running are New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and Verizon Vice President and former Hillary Clinton staffer Leecia Eve. They are all vying to replace disgraced former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who stepped down in haste after the New Yorker reported that he had sexually abused several women. Acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood eschewed calls to run for a full term. The primary is crucial; given the ideological makeup of New York, whoever wins the Democratic primary is expected to coast to the office.

The Chance

Early polls showed James leading, thanks to massive institutional support from Governor Cuomo, the state Democratic party, and many other prominent New York politicians, unions, and political clubs. Maloney, who lacks any institutional support in New York State politics but wields a $3 million war chest from his congressional campaigns–which, through much controversy, he was able to channel towards his attorney general run–was in second. He narrowly led Teachout who is backed by fellow progressives Cynthia Nixon and Andrea Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Times and grassroots organizations like Indivisible. Leecia Eve was trailing by a large margin.

As a white male with a moderate voting record in Congress, Maloney was considered an unlikely choice to replace Schneiderman in the midst of the #MeToo movement and a surge of progressive energy. (Though, it should be noted, he would be the first openly gay male state attorney general in US History). However, he is now leading the pack narrowly in the latest Siena poll.

This could perhaps be chalked up to the fact that James, Teachout, and Eve are all drawing from roughly similar pools of voters–young, diverse and progressive–whereas Maloney has a very different appeal that attracts a more well-to-do, suburban base. Another factor has been Maloney’s ability to blanket the airwaves, thanks to his massive campaign coffers. With over 40% of voters undecided in the early polls, that has probably made a huge difference. With 30% still undecided in the latest poll, it may just tip the election in Maloney’s favor.

The District

But one big question swirling around Maloney’s attorney general candidacy is “what happens to his congressional seat if he wins?” Many voters have expressed uneasiness about the idea of nominating Maloney for fear that the district–which voted for Donald Trump in 2016–would fall into Republican hands. The issue has not been isolated in the Hudson Valley either; voters at one of Maloney’s town halls in the Upper West Side expressed an equal concern about the vulnerability of his seat and the balance of power in Congress. Maloney has said he "has a plan" for the seat, but has declined to elaborate further. It’s fair to say that this issue will be a crucial one for primary voters, and is therefore worth taking a look at.

Although Maloney won a third term by a formidable 11-point margin in 2016, dispatching an underfunded and obscure Republican candidate, Trump also narrowly won his district. The 18th district contains Orange County, which is a swing county, portions of Southern Dutchess and Northern Westchester, which lean Democrat, and all of Putnam County, which leans very Republican. This all evens out to make it very competitive.

But despite the electoral evenness of the district, Maloney has had it locked up ever since he narrowly defeated former Rep. Nan Hayworth in their 2014 rematch, after initially defeating her reelection bid in 2012. In the former, he was outspent by Hayworth, but he has since consistently led his opponents in funding by seven figures. He was, and still is, widely expected to coast to reelection this year if he were to remain on the ticket.

The Replacements

If Maloney wins the Democratic nomination for attorney general, and subsequently stands down from his seat, that shakes the congressional race up a lot. This is due in no small part to none of his potential replacements on the ticket looming nearly as large in the district as he does.

One name that has been floated is actor Richard Gere, who would probably bring Maloney’s name recognition—and then some—and some semblance of his fundraising potential. However, considering the performances of celebrity candidates like Diane Neal and Cynthia Nixon this cycle, the local Democratic parties may be wary of going down that road. He's also a 69 year old white man which, in this political climate, is hardly an asset for a Democrat. His publicist has also said that rumors that he is interested in a run are "not true."

Other possible contenders are Orange County Legislator Jeff Berkman, veteran Patrick Davis, and Assemblyman James Skoufis, though he is running for State Senate and has said he will not stand down from that bid. One name that hasn’t been mentioned much is Wappingers Falls Mayor Matt Alexander who, like Maloney, is a gay man with a moderate streak, having been cross nominated on the Republican ticket several times in more than a decade in office. He previously ran for the seat in 2012, losing to Maloney. His background would bring the most continuity. (Full disclosure: I also worked for Alexander.)

However, with all their relative strengths, none of these folks have nearly as good a chance of winning as Maloney. While Maloney’s incumbency advantage shouldn’t be more than “the standard 2%,” according to election analyst Noah Rudnick, an election analyst for OH Predictive Insights, he does have a few individual electoral boosters. He is very charismatic, and is enormously popular in the district thanks to a combination of robust constituent services, bringing pork barrel spending to the district, and an adeptness at political theater. That’s in addition to his fundraising, which is robust even for an incumbent. All those things considered, Maloney probably has a larger built-in advantage than a standard incumbent.

The Opponent

The Republican nominee is James O’Donnell, who lacks both funds and name recognition relative to Maloney. Maloney dismisses him as a “nobody,” however, O’Donnell does have some creds that boost his candidacy. In addition to being a Lieutenant Colonel in the New York State Police, he served as an Orange County Legislator. In this cycle, a candidate with both law and order and elected experience is nothing to scoff at.

By contrast, Maloney’s opponent in 2016, Phil Oliva, was an unelected advisor for the Westchester County Executive. He had nowhere near the resume of O’Donnell. Moreover, O’Donnell has already raised $30,000 more at this point than Oliva raised in the entire campaign. We can also expect that, if Maloney steps aside, outside groups such as the NRCC and the Congressional Leadership Fund will give a newly competitive O’Donnell a cash infusion. This is a win the Republicans desperately need.

The Trumpiness factor

The 18th is an Obama-Trump district, having swung from voting for Obama by about 4 points in 2012 to voting for Trump by 2 points in 2016. There’s no reason to believe that trend has slowed, let alone reversed. Polls of several districts in upstate New York have shown that, despite a roughly 9 point Democratic advantage on the generic congressional ballot—coined the “blue wave“—Republicans are still strong in this particular region, which contains many of the rural and blue-collar voters that Trump strongly appealed to.

A poll by Siena Research—a reputable Albany-based polling firm—showed that John Faso, a particularly weak Republican incumbent from New York’s 19th district, is up 5 points over his Democratic challenger, Antonio Delgado. The 19th district, just north of the 18th, would be expected to vote about 5 points Republican in an even year. Considering that this is a heavily Democratic year, and Faso is a particularly embattled incumbent, it’s reasonable to think that areas like the Hudson Valley are at least somewhat immune to the blue wave. Polls in the 25th and 22nd districts, both in upstate New York, showed similar Republican strength relative to the national environment

There’s also the coattails factor. Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro is the Republican nominee for governor. Cuomo’s unpopularity in upstate New York, and Molinaro’s cross-partisan popularity in the Hudson Valley, may just serve to benefit down-ballot Republicans in the Hudson Valley like Faso and O’Donnell.

That said, an Obama-Trump district like NY18 might easily go for O’Donnell by a slim margin if Maloney is out. Rudnick notes that “it tilts blue of the nation,” in terms of recent down-ballot races, but concedes that “it's all about the Benjamins.” Essentially, Maloney’s money has been key to keeping the district in Democratic hands. Without that cash, it’s anyone’s game.

The Rating

Most analysts and scholars are hesitant to consider this district any more competitive than leaning Democratic, even without Maloney. “The Democrats still would be favored if Maloney won the AG nomination,” says Richard Born, a professor of political science at Vassar College, who notes that while “a GOP upset would be possible,” he would “classify a Maloney-less race as lean Democratic.”

However, much of that hinges on the assumption that O’Donnell is a weak candidate with few funds, and that the Democrats could field a strong replacement for Maloney. But that’s far from certain. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the opposite could very well be the case. If local Democrats can field a strong contender like Gere or Skoufis or even Alexander, they are probably favored to keep the seat. But they could easily end up fielding their own Oliva or O’Donnell. For those reasons, a win for Maloney tomorrow likely makes NY18 a tossup.

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