CAPITAL REGION — It’s up to independent and potentially rogue registered voters to unseat two household names from Congress.
It’s only happened twice in the last 20 years within comparatively purple districts for Democrats: Kirsten Gillibrand ousting Rep. John Sweeney in 2006; and Antonio Delgado ousting Rep. John Faso in 2018. It happened once for a moderate Republican when Chris Gibson defeated Rep. Scott Murphy in 2010. Neither incumbent ran again.
If Democrat Matt Castelli’s and Republican Liz Joy’s hopes come true, toppling Rep. Elise Stefanik R-21 and Paul Tonko D-20, respectively, they’ll join the list.
But money, voter enrollment, and Congressional stagnation, a political theory which explains the low turnover rate of incumbents in the House of Representatives, remains a barrier for fresh faces, said Ron Seyb, a political scientist at Skidmore College.
He believes Castelli and Joy are strong candidates, “but I don’t think Stefanik and Tonko have failed to cultivate their districts,” said Seyb. “I think they’ve actually been very good at, again, doing that basic work that incumbents have to do to maintain both name recognition and favorable name recognition so it’s just a very, very tough enterprise to defeat an incumbent under any circumstances.”
Approximately 94.7% of House incumbents were successful last race and 91% last midterm. Typically, party switches occur when an incumbent appears too disconnected from the needs of their district by a large consensus or an incumbent retires, Seyb said.
The latter was true for Stefanik, who hasn’t faced much of a challenge since snagging the 21st Congressional District in 2014 after Plattsburgh Democrat Bill Owens announced his retirement from the seat.
In the 21st Congressional District, there are 198,550 registered Republicans to 147,222 registered Democrats. There are also about 128,153 independent voters and smaller numbers of voters registered in other parties. In the 20th Congressional District, there are 221,070 registered Democrats to 134,463 registered Republicans. There are 146,848 independent voters and smaller numbers of voters registered in other parties.
Joy’s campaign recently released an advertisement showing disgruntled Democrats siding with the Republican challenger. Joy, who lost by a wide margin to Tonko two years ago, has insisted that issues like public safety and solving economic inflation have a mass appeal.
“They’re saying something,” Joy said in an interview. “We have crossover Democrats in our race that are voting for us.”
Castelli, too, believes he has a crossover coalition wide enough to bear fruit come Nov. 8. His campaign has frequently touted an internal poll from August showing the candidates neck and neck.
“She’s self-described ‘ultra-MAGA’ and people are really turned off because it seems as if she’s only singularly focused on advancing her own career and not actually about solving the many challenges we need to have addressed in our own community,” Castelli said.
All four candidates say their rivals support radical causes.
Tonko said his district is “science-based” and not “extreme” enough for Joy’s opposition against masking and vaccine requirements during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, her attendance at a Washington D.C., rally that preceded the Jan. 6th riot in U.S. Capitol two years ago, and her anti-abortion viewpoints.
About 20 years ago, the 20th Congressional District was more competitive, stretching from Dutchess County to Essex County.
When New York’s original redistricting plans were tossed out in court earlier this year, Tonko insisted that the special master keep Capital Region cities unified under one district. In the process he only lost his hometown of Amsterdam, often regarded as the Mohawk Valley.
If Tonko and Stefanik, who lives in the town of Saratoga, win and don’t move their residences, they might be living within opposite districts.
It’s legal. Members of Congress are only prohibited from living outside their state. Tonko hasn’t decided if he’ll remain in Amsterdam.
“Where am I going to move?” Tonko said. “I gotta win an election before I move.”
Both challengers say they support term limits.
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-4095 or [email protected]
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