Across the country, Tuesday was a bad night for virtually any candidate with a “D” next to their name on the ballot. For Sean Eldridge, the 28-year-old venture capitalist and would-be sitter in New York’s 19th Congressional District seat, it was even worse. After pouring a reported $4 million of his personal fortune into a bid to unseat incumbent Republican Chris Gibson, his campaign ended in a rout — he failed to carry Democratic strongholds in Ulster and Sullivan County and lost by enormous margins in more conservative precincts.
By noon of the day after the Nov. 4 election with 558 of 636 districts reporting, Gibson held a commanding 62.8 percent to 34.1 percent lead, Gibson garnering 112,293 votes to Eldridge’s 60,982. One week before the election, Gibson said he was hoping to win all 11 counties in the district, besting his 2012 performance where he lost by 20 points in Ulster County and a narrower margin in Sullivan. By Election Day it was clear he had reached the goal. In Ulster, the most populous and most Democratic leaning part of the district, he outpolled his Democratic rival 26,146 to 22,595. In Sullivan, the margin was 10,034 to 6,135. In more conservative counties in the 19th, Gibson was leading by as much as 53 percentage points.
For Gibson, who was redistricted into Ulster County as a freshman congressman in 2011, it was a validation of his efforts to establish a presence in Ulster County and make inroads with Democrats and non-enrolled voters. Polls taken throughout the campaign showed the former Army colonel and Iraq war vet holding onto as much as 25 percent of the Democratic vote in the district. His popularity among moderates appeared to be immune to a relentless effort by Eldridge to tie him to the most conservative elements of the House Republican caucus. A Siena University/Time Warner Cable News poll taken in September showed Gibson holding a commanding 24-point lead despite the fact that a majority of respondents held views on issues like the minimum wage and higher taxes on millionaires that were more in line with Eldridge’s message.
“I’m very humbled by the level of support I received across the district and from the across the political spectrum,” said Gibson on Wednesday. “I think it validates my approach to serving in Congress.”
Gibson’s outreach to the middle included touting his membership in the bipartisan “No Labels” caucus and work with his Democratic counterparts on issues like the Farm Bill, increased funding for Lyme disease research and repealing a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission measure that would leave Hudson Valley residents paying higher electric rates. His moderate appeal extended to foreign policy and domestic surveillance. The veteran of four combat tours in Iraq called for more emphasis on “soft power” over military might and backed cuts in the defense budget. He called the NSA’s spying program unconstitutional and supported limits on domestic intelligence gathering. He is one of the few House Republicans who speaks about climate change as a real threat and has described himself as pro-choice, despite a vote to defund Planned Parenthood and ban abortion after 20 weeks.
Eldridge tried to seize on those contradictions in a vain effort to convince voters that his opponent’s moderate impulses where a sham. He rarely missed an opportunity to mention Gibson and House Majority Leader John Boehner in the same sentence. Eldridge repeatedly invoked Gibson’s signing of the so-called “Koch Brothers Pledge” to reject any climate change legislation that would raise taxes. He described Gibson as pro-fracking. (The congressman said he supports fracking, but only within a strong regulatory framework and with communities given the option to ban the practice). Declaring campaign finance reform a key plank of his campaign and rejecting corporate contributions, Eldridge blasted Gibson as putting the interests of his corporate backers over those of constituents.
But the attacks, in direct mail and TV ads, in four debates and countless stump speeches failed to dent Gibson’s popularity. Gibson’s 24-point lead in the September Siena/Time Warner poll eroded by exactly one point in a the same poll a month later, despite omnipresent TV and Internet ads for Eldridge and phone-banking and canvassing efforts by a volunteer force the campaign said totaled 1,000 enthusiastic partisans.
At times, Eldridge’s campaign — run largely by hired consultants from outside the district — seemed to be caught flat-footed. In late August, an event in Poughkeepsie to announce organized labor support for Eldridge was spoiled when another labor group backing Gibson released a poll showing the incumbent with a wide lead. The surprise move left Eldridge in the awkward position of criticizing one labor group in the midst of accepting endorsements from others.
At an October debate in Lake Katrine, Gibson seemed to surprise Eldridge again by repeatedly referring to him as a hypocrite for making money off of personal investments in oil and gas corporations, and accepting personal donations from corporate officers while assailing the influence of corporate money in politics. In response, Eldridge could say only that his money was handled by a third party and, if elected, he would place his holdings in a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest.
One local prominent Democrat, speaking anonymously in the interest of party unity, said in running a campaign based on issues like fracking, climate change and campaign finance reform, Eldridge had largely failed to connect with Democratic voters outside of progressive bastions like Woodstock and New Paltz. Blue-collar democrats, African-Americans and other core party constituencies, the source said, went into Election Day with lukewarm enthusiasm for the candidate.