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In N.Y. House race, presidential election hard to avoid

2016 Presidential election

In N.Y. House race, presidential election hard to avoid

The race for New York's 19th Congressional District, which covers a large and politically split swat
In N.Y. House race, presidential election hard to avoid
Debate between John Faso and Zephyr Teachout in the NY 19th Congressional District race held at the Linda, WAMC's performing arts studio on Thursday September 15, 2016.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Zephyr Teachout walked off the stage of her first congressional debate - and into the buzz saw. "That felt great!" she said. The Democrat had tried to steer the conversation deep into wonk territory, from trade to the Common Core school standards to the role of secret money in politics.

The reporters gathered around her wanted to know about something else.

"Do you think Hillary Clinton has been transparent about her health?" one asked, as a tracker aligned with her Republican opponent, John Faso, pointed his camera at the scrum.

"You know, I am not running her campaign," Teachout said.

"This is on peoples' minds," the reporter insisted, as the tracker got a better angle.

"You know, the biggest issue I've heard is that people are pretty disappointed in both parties," Teachout said.

The race for New York's 19th Congressional District, which covers a large and politically split swath of the Hudson Valley, is a glimpse at what the 2016 presidential campaign might have been. Faso, a Republican legislator who ran for governor 10 years ago, touts his ties to the district and pushes for lower taxes, is the kind of candidate his party had hoped to be running for president. Teachout, a law professor and author, is trying to run an issues-first campaign.

But like every candidate for Congress, Faso and Teachout find themselves trying to escape the drama of the presidential race and its two wildly unpopular candidates. Faso has said he supports his party's presidential nominee, Donald Trump, but he moves off the topic quickly. Teachout supports Clinton, but she was an early backer of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vt., who campaigned with her at a rally in the district earlier this month.

Teachout, whose ads sell her as an "economic patriot," has challenged the donors of a pro-Faso super PAC to a debate, and recorded data-heavy video ads about her policies.

In a competitive race, Faso has focused on discrediting Teachout, branding her an "ivory tower elitist" who "parachuted" into the district - Teachout lived in Brooklyn last year - and claims she is as dirty as anyone when it comes to secret money.

For Democrats, N.Y.-19 is the sort of district the party must win if it's ever going to regain the majority and the sort of district it should win if demography is destiny. The Hudson Valley is growing bluer as more liberals escape the city for picturesque towns and verdant farmland, but retiring center-right Rep. Christopher P. Gibson, R-N.Y., succeeded as the most "liberal" Republican in the House.

In 2012, President Barack Obama won the 19th District by 6 points; Gibson won his race by the same margin. In 2014, Gibson was challenged by Sean Eldridge, the husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. Eldridge had money, but no roots, and his efforts to buy into the district ended in a 28-point landslide defeat.

The Republican pitch for keeping the seat red is that Faso is a local, Teachout isn't - and that a radical from Brooklyn (two favorite Faso pejoratives) would upset the balance the district has come to expect.

Teachout's pitch is that the 19th District needs a wonk. Her first run for office, a surprisingly potent 2014 primary bid against New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, D, coincided with the release of her book "Corruption in America." She clobbered Cuomo in the Hudson Valley; this year, the governor has said he backs "the Democratic nominee for Congress in that district" without using Teachout's name.

Teachout combines Sanders-esque warnings about the threat of plutocratic political money with granular local issues. "Most politicians treat you like you're dumb," she says in her first TV spot. "I never will." On her website, Teachout stars in the sort of policy explainers that would fit in at Vox.com or a how-to YouTube series.

"You know how sometimes the most kind of . . . not boring, but boring-esque things are the most important?" Teachout asks in one of the explainers. "It is really important that we invest in water infrastructure!"

Faso has felt no need to match Teachout chart for chart. He has dubbed her "Professor Teachout," and not to praise her for her work at Fordham University.

"I'm trying to point out the fact that she's an ivory tower elitist who doesn't subscribe to the values of most people in this district," he said. "It's not a term of disparagement; it happens to be accurate."

Teachout's counterpunch is direct: Faso became a lobbyist after leaving Albany, and a pro-Faso super PAC has been fueled by billionaires Peter Singer and Robert Mercer. In August, Teachout's campaign got a burst of attention - and donations - when she challenged both men to debate her. Not just Faso: Faso's donors.

"These are people, mostly men, who are basically just picking and choosing areas and buying people who are going to represent them," she said in an explainer video.

Without the super PAC, Teachout would have had a significant cash advantage over Faso. She ended June with $1,112,242 in the bank; Faso, who like Teachout had faced a primary, ended it with $147,952. Just as Sanders made his average contribution of $27 so famous that his voters would chant it at rallies, Teachout boasts about a $19 average donation, portraying the race as a test of small money against endless wealth.

She is just not getting the test she wants. Early in the campaign, Teachout proposed a "People's Pledge" to bar super PACs from the race. In 2012, now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., had crafted the same deal with then-Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass.

Nobody had copied it. In fact, in 2014, Teachout had watched campaign finance fizzle as an issue no matter how loudly reformers rang the alarms. That year, Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig ran MayDay PAC, a "super PAC to end super PACs," which attempted to swing elections on the money issue and largely failed. When Lessig briefly left MayDay to run for president, Teachout took it over.

In the meantime, Republicans reframed the money issue as one of freedom - or, at best, hypocrisy. When Faso turned down Teachout's money pledge, he did so saying he would "adamantly oppose tinkering with the First Amendment." In this campaign, Faso and Republican allies have pointed to any example of Teachout tapping political allies for money as proof that she stands for nothing.

It was easy. When Teachout criticized Faso's lobbying record, he accused her of being a pawn of special interests - like the government transparency-focused Sunlight Foundation. Politico reported that Teachout would raise money with one of George Soros's sons; America Rising, the group that had sent a tracker to her debate, thundered that "her fraudulent attack on Republicans is absurd in light of her close and long-standing ties to the billionaire Soros family." The National Republican Congressional Committee has added any story about a donation to Teachout to a series, now in its 18th chapter, titled "Zephyr Teachout the pandering Super-PAC hypocrite."

In a finger-wagging way, Faso and the Republicans had proved Teachout's point. The race against the free-spending Eldridge was simple; a race on Teachout's terms, about whether loose campaign finance would let billionaires buy the district, was complicated.

"There are no $500,000 hedge funders in my race," Teachout said in an interview in New Paltz this month. "It's not even close. This is an apples-to-elephants comparison."

A recent campaign visit with Sanders in New Paltz probably boosted Teachout's small-dollar donations. Teachout had endorsed Sanders long before she became a candidate, and Sanders had quoted her work on corruption. The result was something few House candidates anywhere could count on - a massive rally that brought hundreds of people to one of the district's population centers.

In an interview, Sanders said Teachout's agenda was a vote winner for the same reason his was. It wasn't enough to call someone "radical" anymore. "Radical" ideas were winning, if people could hear them.

"Over half of Republicans now think we should raise taxes on people making $250,000 or more," Sanders said. "Very little of what I say is not 'mainstream.' It's just that this country has moved so far to the right that sometimes we forget that."

Onstage, Sanders praised Teachout as a candidate who could become "the most outstanding member" of the House of Representatives." Then he worked on a familiar riff, chiding the media for focusing on "personalities" and the blow-by-blow of the presidential race instead of the "march toward oligarchy" in races like the 19th District.

"You've got to ask yourself two questions: What kind of democracy are we living in when billionaires think they can buy elections?" Sanders asked. "And why are billionaires pouring that money in to help Zephyr's opponent? What do they want?"

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