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Higgins on Easy Street, Hochul Takes the Hard Road

The Buffalo area will elect two members of Congress this November, and the vastly reconfigured district boundaries have very different consequences for incumbents Brian Higgins and Kathy Hochul.

Higgins would have to pull a Chris Lee to lose his job.

Hochul would have to pull, well, a Hochul to keep hers.

Party enrollment figures only begin to tell the story.

Enrolled Democrats outnumber Republicans by 13 percent in the 26th District where Higgins will run.

The GOP holds a seven percent edge in the 27th District, where Hochul will defend the seat she captured last year in a special election follows Lee’s resignation for getting caught with his pants on but his shirt off.

But a look at voting patterns in those two districts show a much wider gulf.

Analyses published by Daily Kos show Higgins’s newly reconfigured district went 63-35 percent for Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008 and 63-37 for John Kerry over George W. Bush in 2008.

Hochul’s district went Republican in both elections. McCain outpolled Obama 54-45 percent and Bush topped Kerry 57-43.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Elections for statewide office in 2010 show Democrats ran much stronger in Higgins’s district than they did in Hochul’s.

Take the 2010 race for state attorney general. Democrat Eric Schneiderman outpolled Republican Dan Donovan 55-44 in Higgins’s district, while Donovan prevailed 61-38 in Hochul’s.

Even where Democrats prevailed in both districts, such as when Chuck Schumer won re-election over Jay Towsend, the margins were much closer in Hochul’s district. Schumer won 70-29 in Higgins’s district vs. 53-45 in Hochul’s.

The numbers are somewhat skewed by Carl Paladino’s run for governor two years ago. He carried both Congressional districts by wide margins and no doubt provided a shirttail for the other Republicans on the ticket. Some of his big vote totals can be attributed to voter disaffection with Albany, but he no doubt got a fair share of support for being the hometown candidate. That won’t be a factor in the Congressional races, where everyone is from the neighborhood.

The numbers also show that strong Democrats can win in Hochul’s district, as is evidenced by Schumer’s victory. A lot of it has to do with the quality of the candidates and their ability to wage an aggressive campaign.

Hochul’s own victory last May is evidence of that. She captured 47 percent of the vote, vs. 43 percent for Republican Jane Corwin, nine percent for Jack Davis, running on the Tea Party line, and one percent for Ian Murphy of the Green Party.

Still, the weight of the numbers strongly suggest Hochul has a fight on her hand.

Decorated war veteran David Bellavia and former Erie County Executive Chris Collins are seeking the Republican nomination and are headed for a June 26 primary. Collins is the heavy favorite. He had better hope he’s better liked by Republican voters than he is by many in the leadership ranks of the party, where he earned a fair share of critics during his four-year run as county executive. Many found him abrasive and an ineffective campaigner, during both his gaffe-filled run for governor and race for re-election last fall.

His efforts to cut funding for libraries and the arts, which helped cost him his job as county executive, aren’t likely to hurt him in the outlying counties—the district spans eight counties—but keep in mind that Erie and Niagara account for 58 percent of the district’s population.

Independents and women are likely to play a big role in deciding the election for Hochul’s seat, and Collins has a potential problem with women because of his elimination of a county program to help low-income working mothers and his crude joking remark to woman that she perform a lap dance if she wanted a seat at a political event the two were attending.

Can’t you just see the television ad now? “Chris Collins wants a lap dance to give up his seat. I’m Kathy Hochul, and I approve this message.”

This will be happily paid for by the Democratic National Committee or some such arm of the party apparatus, which is going to pour a lot of money into the race, as it’s a key battleground in their efforts to recapture the House. The GOP will no doubt counter in kind, and coupled with Collins’s personal fortune, aren’t likely to be outspent.

Where does all this leave us?

Past voting patterns suggest Collins, or any other Republican, enters the race with a numerical advantage, but not an insurmountable one if Hochul runs an effective campaign. She’s done it before. But she faces a tough road.

Higgins is on easy street by comparison. Republicans vow to field a candidate, and Paladino is huffing and puffing about backing an opponent, but the race is Higgins’s to lose.

Mickey Kearns’s lopsided victory over Chris Fahey, who Higgins backed for Assembly, showed a chink in the armor. But Kearns benefitted from name recognition and low voter turnout, and Higgins remains a formidable force in a district with a strong preference for Democrats. At least those who keep their shirts on.

Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center focused on issues of importance to Buffalo and Western New York. Visit daily for investigations, analyses, blog posts, and the latest from Tom Toles.

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