New York state's congressional elections are testing the staying power of Republicans who rode a tea party wave to a House majority two years ago — as well as the resilience of Democrats striving to regain control.
Democrats are targeting four of the five Republicans who took New York congressional seats away from them in 2010. Two more of the most contested House races in New York are in heavily Republican districts where Democrats won special elections.
Included in the mix are three rematches of contests decided by paper-thin margins last election, making New York a busy House battleground for both parties.
The big money involved in the contests reveals the GOP's intent on preserving its foothold in the heavily Democratic state. The National Republican Congressional Committee said it had reserved $5.25 million for TV time in New York, more than half to defend three freshmen. The rest is going to three districts held by Democrats, including the Buffalo area seat won by Kathy Hochul in a special election upset last year.
Democratic spending indicates President Barack Obama's party is equally committed to gaining influence as part of the party's drive to add 25 seats and reclaim the House majority. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said it has spent or reserved $1.02 million for TV time in two New York races.
Hochul made national headlines by pioneering the strategy of casting the race as a referendum on the GOP plan to transform Medicare, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, now the party's vice presidential candidate.
It's not clear whether that strategy will work against Hochul's new Republican challenger, Chris Collins. In a recent interview, the former Erie County executive refused to give an opinion on the plan.
"I'm someone who looks forward and not backward," Collins said. "And the Ryan budget is in the past."
That may be wishful thinking, but there's no doubt that New York — like California and Illinois — is critical to the battle for control of the House. While Democratic leaders express optimism about their chances, analysts generally forecast Republicans holding onto a slimmer majority.
New York lost two of its 29 seats in the House to redistricting for the 2010 Census population changes. Despite the GOP election gains in 2010, Democrats still overwhelmingly dominate — 21-8 — the state's House delegation.
The battle in Hochul's district, which stretches between the Buffalo and Rochester suburbs, is one of the nation's most closely watched House races. A Siena College poll last month showed a statistical dead heat.
Collins has spent most of his adult life as a businessman. He ran the county with a sharp eye on the bottom line, alienating some lawmakers, and has promoted a waste-cutting managerial philosophy during public appearances.
Hochul also is well-known locally as the former Erie County clerk. While Republicans have a 40 percent to 32 percent enrollment edge in the district, Hochul has shown she can pull support from across the aisle.
"Being a Democrat in the most Republican district in the state, I actually can just ignore party labels and be laser focused on what's best for the district," Hochul said.
A bit east, near Syracuse, Democrats hope Dan Maffei can win back the seat he lost to Republican Ann Marie Buerkle by just 648 votes in 2010. Buerkle, the only New York representative to score a perfect 100 on last year's American Conservative Union legislator rankings, is running in a newly drawn district with nearly even numbers of Republicans and Democrats.
The DCCC said it has spent or reserved $361,616 in TV ad time for the race, a fraction of the $1.19 million reserved by the National Republican Congressional Committee.
It's one of two New York seats both committees are pumping money into for TV. In eastern New York, the NRCC has reserved $1.32 million for freshman Rep. Chris Gibson, who is being challenged by Democrat Julian Schreibman. The DCCC has spent or reserved $681,481 for TV ads there.
"The tea party wave of 2010 has receded and left New York's House Republicans high and dry with no cover to hide their toxic voting records and no way to defend their votes to end Medicare to pay for tax breaks for millionaires," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the DCCC.
Nathaniel Sillin, a spokesman for the NRCC, characterized Israel's claims as "ridiculous" and noted the GOP is aggressively pursuing opportunities in the state.
"Republicans continue to be on offense in New York because Democrats are running on more of the same failed tax-and-spend economic policies that have stifled economic recovery," Sillin said.
Two other races provide second chances to Republican challengers who just fell short in 2010.
In northern New York, Democratic Rep. Bill Owens is defending his seat again against Republican businessman Matt Doheny, who narrowly lost in 2010 when a third Conservative Party candidate took thousands of votes. This time, Doheny has both the Conservative and Republican lines on the ballot. In New York, a candidate can accept the nomination of more than one party and reap all votes combined.
On eastern Long Island, Republican businessman Randy Altschuler is trying unseat five-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Timothy Bishop. Altschuler came within 593 votes of defeating Bishop two years ago and this time, he has the third-party Independence Party line, which was worth 7,370 votes for Bishop when he had the line in 2010.
"Super" PACs on both sides are spending money on the race, including the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS, which started an ad critical of Bishop on cable TV last week. The ad focuses on Bishop's role helping get a fireworks permit for a Hamptons bar mitzvah at the request of a businessman who was later solicited by the campaign and donated $5,000. Bishop has said he did nothing wrong in helping a constituent.
The NRCC is spending TV money on both rematches.
In Staten Island, Republican freshman and former FBI agent Michael Grimm is dealing with a potentially much larger issue as he faces a challenge from Democrat Mark Murphy.
The FBI is probing money donated to Grimm's 2010 campaign by followers of an Israeli rabbi. Agents last month arrested an Israeli businessman with links to the adult entertainment industry who had helped Grimm raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from the rabbi's followers in New York.
Some donors have said they broke campaign finance law by donating more money than allowed, or by funneling donations from foreigners who aren't legally allowed to give to U.S. candidates.
Grimm repeatedly has denied knowledge of any improper donations or any other illegal activity.