Will Race to Replace Massa Turn Into Another NY-23?

Days after Rep. Eric Massa (D.-N.Y.) stunned pols from upstate New York to Washington with his decision not to run again after one term, the leftist lawmaker sent out another shockwave by announcing Friday that he was resigning from Congress.

The threat of a full-blown Ethics Committee probe into allegations of sexual harassment of male staffers was apparently too much for Massa, who wrote on his website: “It’s not that I can fight or beat these allegations — I’m guilty.”  (The 24-year Navy veteran also admitted he had used language in his office that “might make a chief petty officer feel uncomfortable.”)

What happens next is all so familiar:  another special election in upstate New York drawing national press and political attention; a strong possibility that nominees of both major parties will be selected by a small conclave of county party chairmen; the fear among Republicans that their nominee might not pass muster with the smaller New York Conservative Party, whose ballot line the GOP candidate in all likelihood must also carry to win.

Like the May special election to fill the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha (D.-Penn.), the race to fill Massa’s soon-to-be-open seat could well be played as a referendum on the Obama Administration and, possibly, the current debate raging over health care reform.  (Most Capitol Hill observers, however, expect that whether some new health care package is voted up or out, the issue will be decided before Congress recesses for Easter).  

Once Massa officially resigns, New York Gov. David Paterson is expected to issue a call for a special election, which must be held thirty to forty days later.  

At first glance, NY-29 appears to be in position to revert to the Republican representation it had for all but ten years from 1918 up to when Massa unseated GOP Rep. Randy Kuhl in 2008.  

But that was not unlike the situation in NY-23 last year, when little-known U.S. Air Force veteran and Democrat Bill Owen came out of nowhere and won the seat resigned by Republican Rep. John McHugh to become Secretary of the Air Force.  It is not unlike the situation in neighboring NY-20, resigned by Democratic Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (who was named U.S. Senator), in which another first time Democratic candidate named Scott Murphy won the district that had been in Republican hands since 1978 until Gillibrand ousted the incumbent GOP congressman.

In both cases, less-than-stellar Republican nominees were picked by county chairmen who clearly turned deaf ears to the more conservative grassroots.  As just about every conservative activist knows, GOP sachems in NY-23 tapped “Obama Republican” State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava for nomination and conservatives nationally and in the district bolted to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman (who lost to Owens by about 3,000 votes, Scozzafava having abandoned the race days before the election).  

In NY-20, the GOP nod went to Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, who had a conservative record in Albany but could never bring himself to saying he would oppose the Obama stimulus package until the twilight days of the campaign.

So the question:  have Republican leaders in upstate New York learned their lesson?

The Process Won’t Change, But. . . .

National GOP leaders such as National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Tex.) have long insisted that the problems the national party endured with Scozzafava’s nomination were the result of the closed process through which nominees in special election are chosen in the Empire State.

“It was all about process,” Sessions told me during the GOP retreat in Baltimore earlier this year, “If it had been a more inclusive process, such as a primary, we would not have had the problem we did.”  New York State cannot afford primaries in special elections.  Many Republican leaders have urged State GOP Chairman Ed Cox (who was elected last year) to adopt a system similar to that which Britain’s Conservative Party had adopted under their leader David Cameron to select candidates for the House of Commons:  a series of town meetings throughout the district in which candidates speak and take questions, and then a vote by paper ballot of all registered party members (and paid for by the party organization) to choose a nominee.

Cox and the party may well opt for the Cameron plan for choosing nominees in special elections.  But in all likelihood, this procedure is too elaborate to be implemented immediately and will be in put into action down the line.  For now, chances are very strong that the Democratic and Republican nominee in the 29th District (which includes parts of eight counties) will be tapped by that same old conclave of county party leaders.

The good news, however, is that, almost to a person, there isn’t a Dede Scozzafava among the Republicans eyeing the special election: Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks (who has the backing of her county chairman, Assemblyman Bill Reilich), State Sens. Cathy Young and George Winner, and former Corning Mayor Tom Reed, who had been gearing up to run against Massa.  

“I suspect that the GOP nomination will still be made by the county chairs working their traditional magic,” said historian David Pietrusza, who knows all things New York, “But the difference between NY-29 and NY-23 is that none of the potential GOP nominees comes close to being a  Scozzafava and, I believe, none would be anathema to [New York Conservative Party Chairman] Mike Long.”

For their part, Democrats do have a variety of local office-holders who could run, ranging from Monroe County Assemblymen David Koon (he says he’s "willing to run") to Hornell Mayor Shawn Hogan, who doubles as Steuben County Democratic Chairman and thus can count on 13% of the votes when the county chairs caucus.

But the big news here so far appears to be that New York Republicans may finally get it together to rally conservatives in a special election.  Maybe.