The decision by nearly all of the county Democratic committees in New York’s 19th Congressional District to stay out of the battle royale for the party’s nomination has set off a scramble by the seven Democratic hopefuls to nail down endorsements from individual elected and party officials across the sprawling 11-county district.
In a normal primary campaign between two candidates seeking to carry the party’s banner into the November general election, county committees could be expected to hold a vote to deliver the their imprimatur to one or the other of the hopefuls. But 2018 is not shaping up to be a normal election year. Democrats are anticipating a “blue wave” election as a party base fired up by the Trump presidency turns out in force. Nineteenth District incumbent Republican John Faso is running for his second term and is widely seen as vulnerable in a “purple” district that voted for Obama in 2012 before swinging to Trump in 2016.
The dynamics of the race have produced seven candidates for the party’s nomination, all of whom have demonstrated enough fundraising and organizational muscle to be seen as viable by party leaders. But a surplus of ambitious and talented Democrats seeking to ride the blue wave is not a local phenomenon. Across the country, the party is engaged in a massive effort to sort through and select standard-bearers — without touching off an intra-party civil war. In the progressive bastion of California, where open primary rules allow Republicans to compete for the Democratic Party line, a surfeit of Democratic candidates threatens to turn blue districts red and scuttle party leaders’ hopes to seize control of the House of Representatives.
“It’s a national Democratic phenomenon and it’s creating a problem,” said Ulster County Democratic Committee Chairman Frank Cardinale. “It’s good that people are interested in running, but it really complicates the process.”
In response to the crowded field, local party leaders have opted to let the chips fall where they may in the June 26th primary vote. Of the 11 Democratic committees in the district, just one has offered an endorsement — the Dutchess County Committee threw its support behind Rhinebeck resident Antonio Delgado. Kingston Democratic Committee Chairman Joe Donaldson said that while he favored a vote for a committee endorsement, others were wary of the potential fallout. Neither the Kingston city or Ulster County committees backed a candidate as a whole.
“With so many candidates running, you don’t want to make anyone mad,” said Donaldson. “And you don’t want to pick someone to endorse who’s not going to win, that would give Faso fodder in the general.”
Cardinale said that the decision not to endorse was influenced, in part by the lack of a clear front runner in the race. Like Donaldson, Cardinale believes that a committee endorsement of a losing primary candidate would be politically damaging. Offering up an endorsement in a race where he believes the candidates will split the vote nearly evenly meanwhile, would, he said, be a largely empty gesture.
“If someone could tell me who is the strong leader, who is going to win I might feel differently,” said Cardinale. “Everyone has their favorites but no one can say ‘this one is way out front, let’s jump on the bandwagon.’”
With the committees staying above the fray, candidates are zealously pursuing endorsements from individual committee members and elected officials. In recent weeks all seven campaigns have kept up a steady stream of press releases touting the endorsements. Former Andrew Cuomo press aide Gareth Rhodes has secured endorsements from a string of elected officials including Donaldson, Ulster County legislative minority leader Hector Rodriguez and Kingston Common Council members Jeffrey Ventura-Morrell and Bill Carey. Delgado recently touted endorsements from Rosendale county Legislator Manna Jo Greene and county human rights commissioner Nina Dawson. Pat Ryan, a West Point graduate and Kingston native, has endorsements from town supervisors in Woodstock and New Paltz and Dutchess County legislative minority leader Hannah Black. Kingston-based attorney David Clegg has support from Kingston Common Council members Rita Worthington and Tony Davis while Greene County businessman Brian Flynn is touting the endorsement of two more council members, Andrea Shaut and Doug Koop.
Some local elected officials are taking their cue from the committees and declining to endorse. In Kingston, Mayor Steve Noble said that he had heard from all of the 19th District hopefuls but had declined to endorse any of them. Noble said his non-endorsement reflected prior relationships with most of the candidates and his belief that any of them would do a good job representing the district.
“They have all asked and I know them all, I knew many of them before they decided to jump in the race,” said Noble. “But I can’t publicly endorse any of them.”
Just what the individual endorsements mean, especially when spread across a seven-person field, is unclear. Clegg’s field director, former Kingston Common Council member Jennifer Fuentes, said the plethora of candidates had made for some hard decisions among the Democratic base.
“Every endorsement comes with its own set of people who admire them and I think that carries over,” said Fuentes of the individual endorsements. “But people are all over the map on this one. More and more people are planting their flag but a lot of people just don’t know where they stand because there are so many candidates.”
Along with individual endorsements, some major organizations are beginning to throw their support behind candidates as the primary looms. These groups offer more than a statement of approval: Many come with organizational firepower like phone banks and paid canvassers. Others signal support from key elements of the party base. Virtually all have stayed out of the primary fight until very recently.
Delgado secured the endorsement of Citizen Action of New York, a social, racial and economic justice group with a knack for grass roots organizing. Rhodes meanwhile recently announced backing from the 2,000-member Communications workers of America Local 1120. Clegg has support from Indivisible Ulster, a grass roots activist network that has been organizing weekly protests outside Faso’s Kingston office since early 2017. In April, Flynn became the first candidate to secure backing from a national labor organization when the Transportation Workers of America announced their endorsement. Jeff Beals, a former state department diplomat and Woodstock Day School teacher, burnished his outsider credentials with an endorsement from Justice Democrats — a group founded in part by former staffers of 2016 presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders. Erin Collier, a latecomer to the race and the only woman in the contest, has the support of the powerful “EMILY’s List” political action committee dedicated to electing female candidates. Ryan has enjoyed early and strong support from VoteVets.org, a progressive political action committee focused on electing veterans.
But several party officials said that while individual endorsement might swing a few votes in what is expected to be a close race and organizational support can help boost name recognition, it’s the candidates themselves who will make or break their campaigns with intense retail politicking.
“I’m not sure how much endorsements count in a race like this,” said Noble, who came to office in 2015 via a fraught primary campaign against an incumbent fellow Democrat in which he had few public endorsements. “It’s really about knocks and doors and getting to know voters. Whoever does that the most and the best wins.”