Archive (2008)

NY-29: 2008 So Far

The 2008 cycle in the 29th district has been a much different story than the midterm election two short years ago.  While incumbent Randy Kuhl is still going to be hard to beat in this heavily Republican district, the 2006 efforts of challenger Eric Massa have set the stage for a much tougher fight this cycle.

In April 2006, former Navy Commander Massa had raised $250K and was just beginning to get his campaign  organization together.  This cycle, Massa is pushing $900K, he's had campaign staff on board for months, and he's become a fixture as the head of the loyal opposition in the Southern Tier. 

In 2006, at the end of his Freshman term, Randy Kuhl's fundraising report was full of "automatic" PAC donations from corporations that had business with the committees upon which he sits.  Kuhl also received some money from labor because of his pro-labor history in the New York Senate.  This time around, Eric Massa has already garnered an AFL-CIO early endorsement, and Kuhl is $150K off his 2006 moneymaking pace.

One of the cornerstones of Kuhl's 2006 campaign was his proud claim that he held yearly constituent meetings in every town in the 29th.  In the Northern 29th, which contains the affluent, more Democratic Rochester suburbs, those meetings were the subject of anti-war protests in 2007.  This year, Kuhl changed the format of those meetings to constituent meetings, by appointment only.  This move has been controversial and certainly will be a campaign issue.

In 2006, Kuhl's twenty-year relationship with the Southern Tier media generally guaranteed that his press releases and conferences were well-covered, and that his message went out without being challenged.  Today, while Kuhl's minor photo ops still generate press, stories based on his substantive press releases are usually contested with quotes from Eric Massa.  Kuhl's op-eds are also balanced by Massa op-eds or letters to the editor.  Massa is often quoted in Southern Tier papers when reporters need a local opinion on national issues like Iraq, or if they want a prominent Democrat's view on the primary contest. 

Media coverage in the Northern 29th is a different story.  Because Monroe County (Rochester and its suburbs) contains parts of four Congressional Districts, Kuhl or Massa are infrequently mentioned in the local media.  Print coverage by the dominant local paper, Gannett's Democrat and Chronicle, is especially light after rounds of cutbacks and resource re-allocation.  Television coverage is also rationed between the four area seats, and neither Massa nor Kuhl spend much time on Monroe County screens.

Local party support in the 29th is generally weak for Democrats and strong for Republicans.  The Monroe County Democratic Party's strength comes from urban Rochester, which isn't part of the 29th.  In the recent legislative elections, Democrats fielded some good candidates but were still mainly beaten in the suburbs.  Part of the reason for this loss was the inability of the sclerotic MCDC organization to field a candidate for County Executive.  This allowed incumbent Maggie Brooks to use her warchest to retain a one-vote majority in the county legislature. 

Though Massa can expect almost zero support from the weak and inwardly-focused MCDC, he got an unexpected boost from Brooks, whose misnamed FAIR tax-reallocation plan is enormously unpopular in the suburbs.  Suburban school districts were recently victorious in a court battle to overturn the plan, which would have caused multi-million dollar shortfalls at schools that regularly make nationwide top-100 lists.

The Southern Tier Democratic Party organizations have generally had it tough in the most Republican part of New York State.  In Corning, Massa's home, Democratic Mayor Frank Coccho lost a re-election bid in 2007, and there are few Democrats in city or county offices in the rest of the Southern Tier.  As a charismatic leader who actively participates in city and county elections, Massa's popularity with Southern Tier Democrats remains high.  Massa's hard work on behalf of local committees was rewarded with speedy and unanimous endorsements by Southern Tier committees when David Nachbar, a Rochester businessman, began organizing his quickly-aborted primary challenge. 

As a fixture in Southern Tier politics for more than two decades, Randy Kuhl  can expect the same high level of support in 2008 from Southern Tier Republicans as he's enjoyed almost 30 years of State Senate and Congressional races.  He will also get a boost from Steve Minarik's Monroe County Republican Party.  Minarik, a highly-disciplined and ruthless pro, recently purged the Republican committee in the town of Mendon, an affluent Monroe suburb, after that party lost some seats in the town election.  Minarik's housecleaning and leadership will serve Kuhl well, and he can expect strong turnout from 29th district Republicans in Monroe County and the Southern Tier.

With no primary challenge expected in either party, Kuhl and Massa will be able to concentrate their efforts on the Fall election.  Massa has already been challenging Kuhl to debates at every opportunity.   At this point in the race, it appears that Republicans are unable to field good candidates in NY-25 and NY-26.  This means that the 29th  might be the hardest fought contest in New York this Fall.

Gas Prices and DAR

The Hornell Evening Tribune covers Randy Kuhl and Eric Massa's positions on gas prices.  This is a good story and worth reading in its entirety.  It's also notable for this Kuhl quote about the McCain proposal for a gas tax holiday:

“The effect I’m concerned about is loss of revenue,” Kuhl said. “That loss would be covered by the general fund, so there would be a lessening of the impact, but I don’t like the idea of building future debt for our children.”
Kuhl, the Republican in the race, rarely acknowledges the massive national debt.

The Wellsville Daily Reporter has a story with photo of Kuhl presenting a DAR good citizen award.  Some commenters on earlier fundraising stories have noted that it appears that Kuhl doesn't want to fundraise.  But in the Southern Tier, where free publicity like this story is plentiful for an incumbent, perhaps Kuhl's decision to spend more time at photo ops rather than on the phone begging for money makes some sense.  And remember, this publicity is all on Uncle Sam's dime.

"Starting Later" is No Explanation

Yesterday's Corning Leader says this about Kuhl's lackluster fundraising:

One possible explanation for the discrepancy in fund raising numbers is the length of time the two candidates have been officially in the race.  While it was widely speculated Kuhl would run for reelection, he did not officially kick off his re-election campaign until March.
Kuhl kicked off his 2006 campaign at about the same time as this year's campaign.  According to his Q1 2006 report, he raised $764K by the end of March, 2006.  His latest report shows that he's raised $606K over the same period this cycle.  He's raised $160K less in a comparable period, and his cash on hand is down roughly $75K.

In contrast, Massa raised $255K by this time in the 2006 cycle.  He's raised $868K this time.

Kuhl faces a more experienced, more well-known, and better-financed candidate this cycle, and he does so with less cash than he had last cycle.  This is grim news for the Kuhl campaign, and no spin will change that fact.

Massa on Gas and Money

Reader Elmer sends the front page [pdf] and jump [pdf] of two stories in today's Corning Leader.  One story is about rising gas prices.  Eric Massa is the main subject, and he states his opposition to John McCain's plan to temporarily suspend gas taxes to lower the price of gas. 

The other story is Massa and Kuhl's fundraising numbers, which includes one rationale for Kuhl's low numbers:  he started later than Massa.

The Hornell Evening Tribune also has a story on Massa and Kuhl's fundraising numbers. 

Debates and Money

The Messenger-Post's latest editorial says that the "ball is in Kuhl's court" on debates between the two candidates.  Kuhl's reasons for waiting to schedule debates are his need to gather petition signatures and the possibility of having a primary opponent.

The real reason, which is true in almost every campaign, is that the incumbent has more to lose than the challenger in debates.  Debates also allow the voters to see the challenger and incumbent at the same level, and take some of the sheen of inevitability from the incumbent.

So, I don't blame Kuhl for waiting to schedule debates, and I understand why Massa is pushing hard to get him to commit to them. 

What I don't understand is how Kuhl's impoverished campaign is going to get its message out.  Part of the reason Kuhl won in 2006 was a last-minute blitz of TV ads in the Rochester market.   It doesn't look like he's going to be able to afford that this year.  Direct mail is also expensive.  And even the Internet costs money -- Randy doesn't even have his campaign website up yet.

Unlike expensive for-pay media, debates only cost the gas money, and they're usually well-covered by the press.  For that reason alone, I'm wondering if we'll see the Kuhl campaign decide to attend a few more this time around.

Money Stories

Both of the area's Gannett papers, the D&C and the Star-Gazette,  ran stories about the Massa and Kuhl money numbers.  Both quote Massa and the RNCC.  The RNCC thinks 2006 was the "worst environment for Republicans in decades". 

Update: The Messenger-Post also has a money story.  This one quotes Kuhl's confidence that he'll get his message across.

Kuhl's Q1 Money Numbers

Randy Kuhl's campaign finance report is out.  Kuhl raised $110K last quarter, less than half of what Massa's total.  Kuhl has $365K cash on hand, $200K less than Massa.  Kuhl raised $47K from individuals, and $64K from PACs.

Massa Money Numbers

The Massa campaign has issued a press release with their first quarter fundraising numbers.  Massa raised $278K during the first three months of the year, and increased his cash on hand to $565K.

This performance is almost identical to the fourth quarter of 2007, and Massa's cash on hand is up about $150K.

Neither the Kuhl nor Massa official reports have hit the FEC website yet.

As Predicted

The Messenger-Post is first out of the blocks with its IRS/seniors story, which is why Randy Kuhl and Maggie Brooks went to a senior center in Pittsford last week.

Paging Elmer Fudd

Guns are a hot-button issue, especially in the rural parts of the 29th.  Will Barack Obama's recent comments about guns lead to coattail issues for Eric Massa?  I'm not an expert on the Southern Tier, but based on my experience in other rural areas, my guess is that Obama's gun comments won't do any lasting damage.

I grew up in a small town on the plains where guns and hunting were just a part of life.  Our family, like most other families, had guns -- in our case, a rifle and a couple of shotguns.  My Dad didn't pass down the hunting tradition to his sons.  He had done some hunting as a boy on the farm where he grew up, and he decided it wasn't for him.  His contribution to our gun education was a few serious talks about gun safety when his sons got old enough to do a little casual hunting.   The biggest thing I ever killed was a prairie dog, and, like my old man, I decided it wasn't for me. 

My experience is that most people take their hunting and gun ownership seriously, because a gun is an interesting and sometimes dangerous tool that must be treated with respect.  But, like every other human pursuit, some make gun ownership and hunting the center of their existence.  When I was growing up, these people had bumper stickers on their pickups making predictions about their cold, dead hands.  In our small town, these people were tolerated.  They certainly weren't celebrated, because, frankly, they were a little scary. 

So, when Obama talks about clinging to guns, I'll wager that every single person back home knows exactly what he means.  In fact, if they're like me, they can put a face on it (I'm thinking of you, 8th-grade civics teacher/NRA member). 

Is that condescending?  I thought to condescend was to imagine something false about the "little people".  The phenomenon that Obama describes is real.  The condescension I see is from media elites whose idea of hunting was shaped by watching Warner Brothers' cartoons on Saturday mornings.

Obama's real position on guns is a little better than average for a Democrat, but, like Hillary Clinton, it isn't appealing to rural populations.  Proposed restrictions on guns and ammo sales at gun shows are a pain in the ass for rural voters, who resent being inconvenienced for what they think is a big city problem.  The NRA and other groups try to spin assault weapon bans as the first step towards government confiscation, but most reasonable hunters I know don't hunt with AK-47s or AR-15s.  That said, anyone who's ever fired a rifle or shotgun knows that the firepower available in "hunting" guns can do sufficient damage in the wrong hands, so the whole assault ban seems kind of silly.

Even though Obama's position on guns isn't what most hunters want to hear, most of them understand that you don't get everything you want from a politician.  They also understand that guns are here to stay, no matter what the fear-mongers say. My 8th-grade civics teacher will not vote for Obama, but that's true about any Democrat on the national stage.  Unlike him, the majority of gun owners will weigh Obama's position on guns along with the rest of his views.

Eric Massa, whose position on gun control is "no additional federal regulation", probably won't be hurt by what Obama said, since their positions are different.  If you want some evidence that Massa's strategy on guns works, consider Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD-AL), Earl Pomeroy (D-ND-AL), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Kent Conrad (D-ND) or Byron Dorgan (D-ND).  There are probably more hunters in the Dakotas than in all of New York State, and 5 of 6 of their national representatives are Democrats.

Sunday Morning News Coming Down

Not much happening in the 29th media this weekend. 

The Corning Leader has a story on Eric Massa's AFL-CIO endorsement.  I had missed the AFL-CIO's claim of 56,000 members in the 29th when I posted the original press release earlier this week. 

WETM quotes Randy Kuhl saying that he's reassured by President Bush's statement that we're not going to be in the war "forever". 

Mortgage Crisis Anecdotes

As I wrote earlier, the Rochester area did not experience a housing bubble.  Yesterday, I had a conversation with a former mortgage broker turned loan officer, and it's pretty clear that this area didn't escape the sub-prime financing boom, and that our market will be feeling the impact of the sub-prime bust.   Here's some of what this person experienced:

  • The bulk of recent mortgage business handled by this broker was sub-prime, meaning that the house was financed 100% by the bank.  These loans were more lucrative for the banks because of the extra fees and interest the bank could charge for no-collateral mortgages.
  • Many loans were "stated income" loans, which means the borrower stated their current income and did not provide any income verification.  Industry slang for these loans is "liars loans".
  • Some home equity line of credit companies employed appraisers who routinely inflated home values.  In practice, this means that homeowners are unable to refinance their homes to escape the high interest of their second mortgage, because the true appraised value of their home is less than what they owe on their first and second mortgages.
  • There have been a good number of "short sales", where the bank allows the borrower to settle their mortgage for the price of their house, even if that house price is less than the mortgage balance. 
With 20-20 hindsight, banks are clamping down, hard.  Liars loans are a thing of the past, income must be verified, and mortgage companies have completely disconnected appraisers from brokers to reduce fraud.

The end result is that loans are harder to get, and those with any credit or income issues are immediately shunted to the FHA.  In Rochester, this means fewer buyers, and also that marginal property (poorly maintained, bad location) is selling for far less than it did a short time ago.  In addition, the market is further depressed by short sales, because the bank and borrower are motivated to sell the house quickly and for less than previous market values.

Though this conversation is a sample of one, it's certainly consistent with what I've read is happening with financing in bubble areas.  Mortgage companies were offering more credit that their customers could handle.  As I noted earlier, government can't really fix that unless they continue the questionable lending practices that got us into this mess in the first place.  We're going to have to ride this one out.