Republicans are looking with new interest at the House seat in New York of Democrat Maurice Hinchey, buoyed by the entry in the 2012 race of Tom Engel, described by a GOP strategist as “a good candidate with resources.”
“This is normally a seat we wouldn’t be watching,” the strategist said. But in 2010, Hinchey won reelection by a surprisingly narrow margin, 52-48 percent, over an underfunded Republican, George Phillips.
Engel, 65, has pledged to raise more than $2 million in the race, including an amount of “six figures” from his own pocketbook. As an assistant U.S. attorney in the 1970s, he prosecuted the FALN, a terrorist group accused of more than 100 bombings. For the past three decades, he’s been in private law practice in New York City while keeping a home in upstate Ulster County.
To manage his campaign, Engel has hired Rob Ryan, a prominent Republican consultant in New York. Ryan has worked in many New York races, including those of ex-governor George Pataki.
In 2010, Republicans captured six Democratic House seats in New York, but failed to target Hinchey’s district, New York 22. The district, which has a slight Democratic tilt, is north of New York City and includes the cities of Binghamton and Ithaca, both college towns.
Since their gains last November, Republicans have lost two special elections for House seats in New York. Ousting Hinchey, 73, first elected in 1992, would help reverse that trend.
Hinchey’s possible retirement is another reason Republicans are eyeing the district. Though he underwent surgery for colon cancer this week, Hinchey has indicated he intends to run for reelection next year.
In 2008, Hinchey benefited from a huge turnout of college students at Cornell and SUNY Binghamton to vote for Barack Obama for president. But Republican strategists believe students are less enthusiastic about voting for Obama now and their turnout will be smaller in 2012, giving Hinchey and Democrats less of a coattail effect from the president’s reelection campaign.
And Republicans plan to make Hinchey’s undiluted liberal record a major issue, plus his run-in with a reporter in 2010. He was accused of telling a reporter to “shut up” and poking him in the chest after the reporter persisted in asking about the congressman’s stake in a local development project.
In his campaign last year, Hinchey held a fundraiser based on the theme “Maurice goes to Cuba.” The invitation pictured him with Fidel Castro. He has also called for nationalizing the oil industry. “Then we can control how much gets into the market,” he said in 2008.
Engel favors the repeal of Obamacare and opposes tax increases. New York recently approved same sex marriage, but Engel remains opposed. “My view, notwithstanding the views of the New York state legislature and governor, is that marriage is between one man and one woman,” he said in a statement. “This is history, this is tradition, this is religion.” Engel favors civil unions.
While Engel has excited Republicans in Washington, he may face a tough primary. Phillips, who lost to Hinchey twice, is running for a third time. He is popular with conservatives in the district and is likely to be a formidable challenger in the Republican primary.