The race in our 19th Congressional District, where Democrat Zephyr Teachout and Republican John Faso are vying for the seat being vacated by Republican incumbent Chris Gibson, is a rarity in the 2016 election cycle — a competitive contest.
Thanks to gerrymandering, the process by which district lines are drawn to favor one party or the other, most of the nation’s 435 House of Representatives seats are “up for grabs” in name only. This year, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates 380 of 435 districts as “solid” for one or the other major parties. Another nonpartisan source, the website 270ToWin.com lists just 46 competitive districts nationwide.
The candidates met for the first of three scheduled debates on Thursday, September 15 at WAMC’s The Linda auditorium in Albany. A recording can be heard at www.wamc.org.
New York’s 19th Congressional District was formed in 2012 to reflect the loss of two of the state’s House seats based on population data from the 2010 census. The staunchly Democratic 20th Congressional District, which included Ulster County and was for many years held down by Maurice Hinchey, was merged with the 22nd to create a new, more compact and more competitive 19th. With a total population of 717,708, the district sprawls across a broad swath of the Hudson Valley and Central New York. It includes all of Ulster, Greene, Columbia, Otsego, Schoharie and Sullivan counties, as well as portions of Broome, Dutchess, Montgomery and Rensselaer counties.
Politically, the district offers a slight edge to Republican candidates. There are 144,898 registered Republicans in the 19th compared with 147,253 Democrats. But when you add in 11,625 members of the right-leaning Conservative party to the GOP numbers and 2,557 members of the left-leaning Working Families Party to the Democratic column, Republicans emerge with an enrollment advantage of 6,175. The district also contains 28,942 members of the largely non-ideological Independence Party and 1,980 Green Party members. But it is voters who are not enrolled in any political party that make up the third largest voting bloc in the district at 126,928, who hold the ability to turn the district blue or red.
The political geography of the district is heavily weighted towards Ulster County which has both the most voters and, along with neighboring Sullivan County, the highest proportion of registered Democrats. Ulster County has 120,576 total registered voters, including 43,589 Democrats and 29,514 Republicans. At the other end of the spectrum, Republican-leaning Schoharie County has just 20,168 voters. Other Republican leaning portions of the district include Otsego, Greene and Delaware counties and those parts of Dutchess, Broome, Montgomery and Rensselaer counties that fall in the 19th. In Columbia County Democrats and Republicans/Conservatives are nearly evenly split.
Obama won the district, but so did Gibson
Given its robust party infrastructure, it is unsurprising that the first two Democratic candidates for the reconstituted 19th have come out of Ulster County. In 2012, Gibson, a Kinderhook native and retired Army officer, held the incumbent’s advantage but was forced to expand his appeal in a newly drawn district that included heavily Democratic Ulster County and progressive enclaves like Woodstock and New Paltz. Running as a moderate, Gibson brushed aside a challenge from attorney and then-Ulster Democratic Committee chairman Julian Schreibman by a 52.9 percent to 47.1 percent margin. Gibson’s win came even as the district as a whole voted for President Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney by a 52.1-45.9 margin. Gibson would spend the next two years touting his bipartisan credentials in both Congress and in the district. In 2014 he crushed political neophyte and recent transplant to Ulster County Sean Eldridge by a 62 percent-34 percent margin.
After Gibson announced in January that he would not seek a fourth term in office, many area Democrats pinned their hopes of taking the seat on Ulster County Executive Mike Hein. Like Gibson, Hein brought a reputation as a moderate that insiders believed would be a good fit in a district ruled by neither Tea Party Conservatives nor Bernie Sanders-style progressives. Late last year, chairs of all 11 Democratic committees in the 19th CD drafted a letter urging Hein to run for the open seat. But Hein declined the invitation. Teachout, who moved to the district about 18 months ago fresh on the heels of her surprisingly strong showing in her 2014 primary against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, announced her candidacy not long after Hein bowed out. She would go on to win the nomination in June’s primary against Columbia County farmer Will Yandik. Faso of Kinderhook, a former state Assembly minority leader and onetime candidate for State comptroller and governor, got the Republican nomination after beating out Dutchess county businessman Andrew Heaney in June’s GOP primary.