One of the great things about this election is that nobody knows how it's going to turn out. I wouldn't be surprised by a Massa blowout, a Massa win, or a Kuhl squeaker. A Kuhl blowout would be a surprise, but even Bob Van Wicklin isn't predicting that.
I stick by the prediction that I made when I started this blog: this race is a bellwether. If it's a Massa blowout, or even a Massa win, I expect Democratic gains in both houses on the high end of analysts' predictions. If Kuhl wins, Democrats will control the House by a razor-thin margin at best, and probably won't control the Senate.
There are no national exit polls in House races, so we'll have to wait until the polls close to determine the winner. With New York's venerable yet reliable voting machines, returns come in quickly. The suspense will be over shortly after voting ends at 9 p.m.
With the election one month away, I want to step back and try to figure out where this race stands and make some predictions.
Polls and Pundits: The 29th race remains on the fringe of "hot races" tracked by major political writers. Charlie Cook and the National Journal both re-classified a long list of races last week. The 29th didn't budge, partly because there hasn't been any independent polling of the race. The 29th may see one or two independent polls before the election, but the accuracy of those polls will be in doubt.
Professional pollsters' ability to predict congressional races isn't great, especially in midterms where identifying likely voters is crucial. One recent example next door to the 29th is Tom Reynolds' race in the 26th. Zogby called it 48/33 for Davis three days after SurveyUSA said 50/45 Davis. Reynolds probably didn't lose 12 points of support in three days - it's a "house effect" of the polling company's sampling method.
Sites like pollster.com have taken to tracking the trend in races using a number of polls to judge momentum. Without polling history, we won't be able to do this in the 29th, and we won't know if the poll we see is an outlier or a fair judge of the race.
Nevertheless, the national and state press are looking for blood. If an independent third party releases a poll with Kuhl under 50% (the traditional "safe spot" for an incumbent), expect pundits to notice and rankings to move, no matter how big the Massa-Kuhl spread.
Ads and Money: Randy Kuhl went negative without provocation this week. Since his campaign has taken two polls that haven't been released, I can only assume that they made Kuhl want to drive up Massa's negatives. Incumbents in safe seats run the sunny kinds of ads that we've seen from Hillary Clinton and Eliot Spitzer. Worried incumbents run ads like Kuhl's that portray their opponents in grainy black-and-white.
Kuhl has enough money to continue running negative ads, and he will. Kuhl faces a challenge because a political newcomer like Massa provides sparse raw material for issue-based attacks. Massa's clean Navy background is another hurdle, since there probably aren't any skeletons in his closet. However, I'm sure the Kuhl campaign is up to the task ("Liberal Eric Massa says he supports the troops, but...").
The mid-month FEC filings will probably show that Massa has out-raised Kuhl, but the kind of scratch Massa needs to mount an effective ad campaign in the 29th's fragmented media market will no doubt still be out of reach. I'll bet that Massa stays positive unless a direct personal attack is launched by the Kuhl campaign, because he doesn't have the resources to do quick-response TV work. Also, with voters becoming more receptive to his positions, he doesn't need to make his points with a sledgehammer.
Local Issues: Short answer: there aren't any. Long answer: if there were any, they've been lost in the noise of Iraq and the Foley scandal. A recent example is the announcement that the VA hospital in Canandaigua has been "saved" -- it didn't even make the Rochester paper.
National and International Issues: There will be fresh revelations in the Foley matter, most likely from ex-House Clerk Jeff Trandal as reported by Newsweek. And new messages will continue to dribble out. These new facts will give the press and the Massa campaign opportunities to ask Randy Kuhl to re-evaluate his support of Hastert. The honest answer is that Hastert won't be Speaker next year even if the Republicans win, but someone has to be the first to say it. Kuhl might want to be first in the chow line at the House dining room, but he'll won't want to be first to dump Hastert. He will end up supporting the leadership, and it will hurt him.
Massa will continue the subtle critique he voiced at Thursday's debate, one that wraps the Foley matter into general lack of responsibility in DC. If he drills into Foley too deeply (no pun intended), he'll risk a backlash. This is one scandal where there's no need to educate the voters on the details - they've all heard them and made up their minds.
Sadly, no good news will come from Iraq. Kuhl's "I went to Iraq" position will be challenged hard by Massa in a debate. He'll also have a tough time with "stay the course", since even party stalwarts like John Warner are saying that a change is necessary in Iraq. Rather than changing his position, Kuhl will probably continue to attack Massa's partition strategy, perhaps by using James Baker's critique, which raises a number of good questions.
Massa will struggle defending his plan, because there's no good plan for fixing the mess in Iraq. Nevertheless, voters want a positive strategy for change. Massa will be successful if he can keep focusing on a future where we leave Iraq reasonably stable in a couple of years. He'll be less successful if he over-emphasizes how wrong we are to be there in the first place. That's a common failing of Democrats who, unlike Massa, don't have a plan.
Bottom Line: The fallout from the Foley scandal looks bad for Kuhl, but he has a month to recover and a big bank account to spend. The Massa campaign still faces an uphill battle, but the situation looks as good as it can be for a Democratic challenger in the 29th.
If you buy the notion that the 29th's suburbs might hold the key to this election, what are the numbers needed to drive change?
My model says 5,5,2 and 1.
If 5% of those who voted for Kuhl stay home in 2006, and 5% of those folks vote for Massa instead of Kuhl, and if those trends are magnified by 2 additional percent in Monroe, and 1 percent in Ontario, then Massa squeaks through. Without the input of the 'burbs, it's 51/49 Kuhl, all other things equal.
Let's look at those numbers and the assumptions underlying this model.
The first assumption is that Republicans are dissatisfied, and that they'll express their dissatisfaction in two ways: by voting for Kuhl's opponent, and by staying home. Is 10% Republican dissatisfaction a reasonable number? I dunno, but remember that it's 10% of Kuhl's vote in 2004, not 10% of Republicans - some of those '04 Kuhl voters might be Independents or Democrats.
The second assumption is that suburbs are more likely to change, and that change will be 4% more in Monroe, and 2% in Ontario. Overall, the model assumes that 14% of voters in Monroe, and 12% in Ontario, will either stay home or switch alliance. Fourteen percent is pretty fickle. The Ontario number is smaller than Monroe because Ontario includes suburbs (e.g., Victor) and rural communities -- it isn't a "pure" suburban community.
Finally, we need to deal with the '04 third-party candidates. The model assumes that the Conservative vote will break 2/3 Kuhl and 1/3 Massa. This might be a bit controversial, but I think some hard-core conservatives who aren't satisfied with the Bush administration might want to cast a protest vote. The model also assumes that the Independence party votes will split 50/50: they're independent, after all.
Now this isn't a "real" model -- it's more like "fun with numbers". A real model would, at a minimum, drill deeper than the county level, address differential turnout by party registration, and have a lot more knobs to adjust the underlying assumptions. But I hope this at least captures the basics of one of the more interesting dynamics of this race.
The 29th is an interesting district because almost half of its population is concentrated in parts of two counties: suburban Monroe and Ontario. These counties have 44% of the population over 16, yet 65% of the households with income over $75,000 are situated here. Only 20% of the families below the poverty level in the 29th live in these counties.
In other words, the northern suburbs are big and relatively wealthy. They're also new to the 29th, since they were part of the 28th (Monroe) and 30th (Ontario) until the 2002 redistricting. Pollsters sometimes call 'burbs like these "Volvo-donut" areas. The "donut" refers to the ring of population around an urban area. The "Volvo" refers to the affluent liberals who populate these areas.
Conventional wisdom on the 29th's donut is that it is more of a SUV-donut than a Volvo-donut. Nevertheless, 54% of Sam Barend's votes in the 2004 race came from these two counties, and Monroe was the only county that she carried in 2004.
So, the challenge of the donut for both candidates is clear. Massa must turn out the 'burbs like it's a presidential election year if he's to win, and he needs to change a few hearts and minds. Kuhl needs to keep his base intact, including the conservatives who voted for Assini in '04 (8.8% in Monroe and Ontario).
If you're a Kuhl supporter, you can simply point out that Kuhl would have carried even "liberal" Monroe if he had all of Assini's votes and half of the votes of the Independence party candidate. There's no real race here, because the Conservative vote will make up for any weakness in the Republican votes.
Massa supporters have to look a little deeper to see the basis for a win. Massa needs to pick up something like 10-20% of the voters in this area to win (I'll post the numbers on this later -- they're interesting). To do this, he needs to change minds. The 29th's suburbs are where the changeable minds live:
A final factor in the Massa supporter's case is Kuhl's difficulty in localizing the race in the 'burbs. Kuhl's latest ad points to all of the money he's "brought home" to the district, which is part of an overall effort to make the race about local, not national, issues. The money Kuhl's counting was spent in the Southern part of the 29th. If you grant the (questionable) notion that Members of Congress "bring home" money, the dollars "brought home" to Monroe County suburbs are from Louise Slaughter, not Randy Kuhl.
In my next post on the Volvo-Donut, I'll look at the numbers, and show how a little change in the suburbs can mean a big change in the election.
Note: You can download [pdf] all of the detailed demographic data used for this post.
To understand how Eric Massa can win in the 29th, we need to treat it like a mini red state. Though the 29th is situated in one of the bluest states in the nation, it is rural and mainly Republican.
The good news is that quite a few Democrats who have been re-elected in rural red states with demographics similar to the 29th. Most of them got elected by using a political strategy pioneered half a century ago by a politician who's now the butt of everyone's jokes.
George McGovern -- yes, that McGovern -- is remembered for so many bad things that we tend to forget that he was a superb practical politician. McGovern is dishwater dull on the stump and liberal as they come, yet he was regularly elected and re-elected in one of the reddest and most rural states in the union.
McGovern's experience is relevant to the Massa/Kuhl campaign because, in many practical and historical aspects, Massa's candidacy closely resembles McGovern's in South Dakota. McGovern's first race, for Congress in 1956, was in a state that had no real Democratic party and no statewide Democratic office holders. Massa is in much better shape, since he actually has a party that supports him. But the rest of the parallels are striking:
Both candidates have compelling personal stories during a time of national insecurity.
It's easy to forget in the aftermath of Vietnam that McGovern was a highly decorated war hero. McGovern's personal story gave him credibility on issues of "loyalty", which was critically important during the height of the cold war in a state where one of the senators was a big player in the McCarthy committee.
Unfortunately, the current political climate has a number of parallels to 1956. Dissent or even discussion of the war in Iraq is branded as borderline-traitorous. Like McGovern, Massa's history as a Navy vet make it hard to attack his loyalty or concern for the military.
Both races feature undistinguished Republican incumbents, lawyer-turned-legislators who have done nothing remarkable (good or bad) during their terms.
John R "Randy" Kuhl Jr is as undistinguished in person and in legislative record as McGovern's opponent, Harold Lovre , a small-town lawyer turned legislator and congressman who sank without a trace after losing in '56.
Each of them started their races early and began by crossing their districts building up a base of personal support.
McGovern spent his time before the '56 election criss-crossing the state, sometimes sleeping in his car. During his travels, he collected small donations and wrote up index cards about anyone he met who seemed at all sympathetic to his candidacy. Those cards formed the basis of a database that he used for the rest of his political career. His goal was to collect a set of McGovern supporters. This group, many of whom were registered Republicans, continued to split their tickets to vote for him as he was re-elected to the House and later elected and re-elected to the Senate.
Similarly, Massa prides himself on being the first candidate of either party to announce for the '06 race. He's spent two years visiting the residents of the 29th. The bulk of his financial backing comes from individual contributors. Instead of index cards, he's using new technology like blogs and his website to communicate with and help build a cadre of Massa contributors and volunteers.
Both men ran as centrists on touchy issues, and experts on district issues.
Though McGovern is the most "notorious" living liberal, he carefully tailored his positions to avoid hot buttons. Like Massa, he opposed gun control because guns meant hunting, not urban assault, for his rural constituents.
He was also intimately acquainted with agricultural issues and championed the cause of beleaguered family farmers. Likewise, Massa hits hard on issues of free trade and its effects on manufacturing in his district.
Unfortunately for Massa, there's one distinct difference between this year's race and the '56 McGovern victory: the role of the TeeVee. It was nil 50 years ago. Today, 30-second ads lower the quality of discussion and raises the price of admission for congressional campaigns. In the last few weeks of the race, Massa will be hard-pressed to compete with a better-funded opponent.
Other than this important difference, Massa's grassroots campaign has run every play from a venerable and effective 50 year-old playbook. The results might be just as surprising in NY-29 as they were in SD-1 long ago.
President Bush's proposal for Gitmo tribunals brings back the memory of one of Randy Kuhl's most interesting votes. Last year, Kuhl sided with Sen. John McCain in a vote for a torture ban. Though Bush eventually endorsed this bill, he initially opposed it, and only relented after McCain put together a veto-proof majority in the House. 121 Republicans still voted against the bill.
Today, we have a politically similar situation. Bush's proposal is probably unconstitutional. Republican Senators McCain, Lindsay Graham and John Warner have already expressed skepticism. Whatever bill comes out of Bush's speech may well be opposed by the same bi-partisan coalition that supported McCain last year.
If Kuhl joins that group, he has an opportunity to show he's not "Rubber-Stamp Randy", while still allying himself with respected members of his party. After all, it's only disloyalty if nobody else is doing it.
In the next couple of days, I'm going to write about how each candidate can win this election. The title of today's post, taken from a Tragically Hip song, describes the incumbent, "lying in wait" strategy that Kuhl should follow to increase his chances of re-election.
There's relatively little action in the 29th right now, and that's the way Randy Kuhl wants to keep it. Kuhl seems to be waiting for events to
drive his candidacy. Since his Iraq adventure, he's been out of the
limelight. The last
press release on his campaign website is a month old. Other than a response to MoveOn.org, which he was almost compelled to offer, Kuhl has not yet engaged in this election.
Randy's made a couple of blunders -- inviting Bush this Spring and going to Iraq this Summer are two -- but overall he's played a smart incumbent game. Kuhl realizes that the local and national facts are against him this year. As a freshman, he doesn't have a long record of service to the district, so he can't launch a set of positive service-oriented ads like his colleague Tom Reynolds. As a Bush loyalist, there aren't many positions that he's taken that are broadly popular, so running ads touting his relationship with the President, or his position on national issues, would be a waste of money.
Though it runs against a politician's natural grain, keeping one's
mouth shut is often a good strategy. Kuhl should stick to
it. Unless he's far behind in the polls, he should continue to duck debates. He should be
present for every last vote in Congress, make no speeches
whatsoever, and avoid comment on any topic.
His $500K warchest should stand ready for the next misstep of Massa or Massa's allies. Any attack should be treated as lies about Randy. He wants to appear as a hard-working victim of outside, radical forces. He wants the conversation to be about the picky details of the charges against him, not the broad outlines of his responsiblity for agreeing with Bush administration positions.
Kuhl's strongest advantages are the voter registration split in his district, the inertia of voters in an off-year
election, the relative obscurity of his opponent, and the lack of competitive statewide races. None of these can be made stronger by positive action on his part. That's why his silence is golden, at least until he finds a place where his candidacy has to happen.
What does "lean Republican" really mean?
That's a pretty big lean.
Randy Kuhl's office has announced millions of dollars of grants in the last month (here, here, here and here). These are routine grants, which probably would have happened no matter who was serving in the 29th.
The big splash or "October surprise" in this district would be an announcement concerning the fate of the Canandaigua VA Hospital. This facility has been recommended for downsizing [pdf], and has been the subject of much media attention in the past couple of years.
When President Bush visited the 29th this Spring, he spent most of his time in Canandaigua, though he didn't tour the hospital. A Kuhl announcement that the hospital would be spared would be a political trifecta: It would show that Randy's got some mojo in DC, that there's some upside to his closeness with Bush, and that Eric Massa isn't the only candidate deeply concerned about veterans.
Update: A full list of the recent grants is now available on Kuhl's official page.
The weak primary performance of Barbara Cubin, a Republican incumbent in the very red state of Wyoming, has big-time political analysts like Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato standing up to take notice. Cubin's district is redder than the 29th -- Cook rates it at R+19 (a 19 point Republican bias) versus the 29th's R+5 -- and Cubin has more seniority than Kuhl. If the race for Dick Cheney's old seat in Congress is competitive, then what about the 29th?
Though the 29th garners some mention when weak incumbents are discussed, it is still generally ranked in the second tier of competitive races. Sabato's just-released ferocious forty most competitive Congressional races doesn't include it. The Congressional Quarterly ranks it "Republican Favored", and Cook calls it [pdf] "Lean Republican".
Kuhl's recent activity reflects this conventional wisdom. Kuhl attacks his opponent exclusively through his spokesman. He hasn't agreed to substantial debates, nor has he changed his campaigning schedule. Unlike his colleague Rep John Sweeney (NY-20), he didn't lawyer up to fight the airing of the MoveOn ads. Overall, Kuhl is behaving like an incumbent with a solid lead.
I think this race is closer than the pundits realize, but that's just a hunch. Unlike Senate races, which are polled into the ground, House races like the 29th aren't frequently measured. Kuhl doesn't have a primary challenger this year. So, barring some poll that I don't know about, the next possibility for an eye-opener is the new money numbers, due out at the end of the month.