hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues December 2018-January 2019


Blue wave moves north as Delgado wins

After defeat of Faso and others, Stefanik urges GOP changes



When Antonio Delgado flipped a Hudson Valley congressional district from red to blue on Nov. 6, he set the stage for another likely battle in two years that will test how much the region’s politics really are shifting.

Delgado, a Harvard-educated lawyer who lives in Rhinebeck, rode a Democratic wave to victory in his first bid for elective office, defeating freshman Rep. John Faso, a brand name Republican whose political career in Columbia County stretches back three decades. A preliminary count from the state Board of Elections showed Delgado winning by about 7,600 votes, or 3 percentage points.

By electing Delgado, voters made New York’s 19th Congressional District one of 40 across the nation that flipped from Republican to Democratic control. That was far more than the 23 seats Democrats needed to win a majority in the U.S. House for the first time since 2010.

But the 19th district, which stretches from Rensselaer and Columbia counties south and west across the Catskills to the Pennsylvania border, remains highly competitive. If a different political dynamic emerges in two years, the district could easily swing back to Republican control, explained Richard Born, a political science professor at Vassar College.

“Delgado’s going to have to work very, very hard to hold onto this,” Born said. “He’s going to have to cultivate that district.”

Across the country, Born explained, Democrats picked up House seats mainly in suburban, affluent, well-educated areas where Democratic-leaning voters were highly motivated to push back against President Trump and the agenda of congressional Republicans.

Although a final vote count including absentee ballots wasn’t available as of the beginning of December, election-night tallies showed Delgado’s victory was rooted mainly in the 19th district’s urban and suburban areas. He piled up a margin of more than 20 percentage points in Ulster County, the most populous and most Democratic county in the district, and he narrowly prevailed in Dutchess County, which includes the outer suburbs of New York City and provided the second-largest cache of votes.

Delgado also won by about 10 percentage points in Faso’s home base of Columbia County, which has trended increasingly Democratic in recent years as it has seen an influx of urban transplants from metropolitan New York. (Hillary Clinton narrowly carried Columbia County in 2016, even as Trump carried the 19th district as a whole.)

In the eight other counties or portions of counties in the 19th district, Faso won, often by wide margins. But his vote totals in those mainly rural areas weren’t enough to offset Delgado’s edge in the most populous counties.


Stefanik wins easily
The 19th district was one of three in New York where Democrats challengers unseated Republican incumbents, reducing the GOP’s share of the state’s 27-member House delegation from nine seats to six. The other districts that flipped were the 22nd, in the Utica area, where Anthony Brindisi, a state assemblyman, defeated Rep. Claudia Tenney, an outspoken Trump supporter, in a district the president carried two years ago by 16 points; and the 11th, a district covering Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, where Max Rose defeated Rep. Dan Donovan.
But the blue wave that swept out Faso, Tenney and Donovan barely seemed to reach New York’s northernmost district, the 21st, where Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik coasted to a third term despite a spirited challenge from Democrat Tedra Cobb, a former St. Lawrence County legislator.
Preliminary figures from the state Board of Elections showed Stefanik winning by about 32,000 votes, or 15 percentage points, across the 21st district, which extends from Washington and northern Saratoga counties northward to the Canadian border and west to Lake Ontario. Although the initial count showed Stefanik sweeping all 12 of the counties that are wholly or partly within the district, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported Dec. 2 that the count of absentee ballots, finalized at the county level but not yet reported by the state, would show Cobb narrowly carried Clinton and Essex counties, though Stefanik still won by a substantial margin district-wide.

Born suggested that Stefanik, whose district naturally tilts more Republican than Faso’s or Tenney’s, also managed to inoculate herself against the national Democratic wave by cultivating a reputation as a moderate.

“That race was never really in doubt,” he said.


Hard-fought campaign
Democrats in the Hudson Valley had dreamed of flipping the 19th district ever since a court redrew the state’s congressional map in 2012. That year, New York lost two House seats to reapportionment based on the 2010 census, and legislative leaders in Albany weren’t able to agree on a new map. Rather than the usual gerrymandering, the result was a 19th district that was politically competitive, with a slight Democratic edge in voter enrollment.

But the Democratic candidates in the past two election cycles – Sean Eldridge and Zephyr Teachout – didn’t come close to winning. Both were seen as outsiders who’d taken up residence in the district mainly because of their political ambitions.

In this year’s race, Faso, 66, tried to tag Delgado as another in a series of Democratic carpetbaggers, pointing out that the challenger had only moved to his Rhinebeck home last year. But the tactic was less effective because Delgado, 41, had grown up just outside the district, in Schenectady, and his wife’s family was from Ulster County.

Another line of attack, pushed by an outside group supporting Faso, highlighted Delgado’s short-lived career as a rap singer when he was in his 20s. Critics called the ads a transparent attempt to “otherize” Delgado, who’s black, in a district that’s overwhelmingly white. But the ads didn’t seem to help Faso’s standing in the polls.

More important in the end, Born said, was that Delgado “waged a very effective campaign.”
Delgado won the Democratic nomination in a seven-way June primary, in which he prevailed with just 22 percent of the vote. Political party leaders often try to avoid primaries, on the theory that they squander campaign resources and sow divisions within a party. But Born said the primary in this case allowed the candidates to hone their skills, with Delgado’s win amounting to “survival of the fittest.”

Even before the primary, Delgado was raking in more donations than Faso, and as he turned to the general election he focused on issues like immigration and health care that were a liability for Faso.

Faso provided one of the crucial votes last year for a House bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. The bill, which later died in the Senate, would have cut Medicaid funding by $834 billion over 10 years and also slashed subsidies for people who buy private insurance through the state-run marketplaces created by Obamacare. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the House bill would have increased the number of uninsured people by 23 million over the next decade.

Faso’s support for the bill wound up carrying a big political price.
“He made a mistake, in retrospect,” Born said. “The Republicans didn’t really have an adequate replacement plan.”

Changing the GOP image?

As the political stage for 2020 begins to take shape, one big question is how and whether Republicans will adjust their policies and messaging in response to this year’s sweeping losses in the House.

In a press conference on the day after the election, Trump mentioned Faso by name at the end of a list of House Republicans he appeared to suggest had lost their seats because they failed to adequately embrace his political agenda.

“John Faso – those are some of the people that, you know, decided, for their own reason, not to embrace, whether it’s me or what we stand for,” he said.

But in an interview later in November, Faso told the Times Union of Albany that the president was a liability in his campaign.

“He was a decidedly negative factor in my race and races across the country where we lost the House,” Faso said. “ I think it’s fair to say his prospects in 2020 are very uncertain.”

Stefanik, as the only surviving Republican in eastern New York’s House delegation, has launched a new political action committee aimed at recruiting more Republican women to run for House seats. While voters across the country elected 23 new Democratic women to the House last month, bringing the party’s total number of women representatives to a record high of 89, the ranks of Republican women in the chamber dropped from 23 to just 13.

The Washington Post reported that at a mid-November forum for Republicans running for leadership posts, Stefanik stood up and motioned around the room filled mostly with white men.
“Take a look around,” she said. “This is not reflective of the American public.”
Then she asked the party’s candidates for minority leader what they planned to do to recruit more women.

In an interview later with the Post, she said, “I was struck that I really didn’t get an answer.”
By the beginning of December, she offered a longer and more pointed critique of her party’s House leaders in an interview for a front-page story in The New York Times.

“There has been close to no introspection in the G.O.P. conference and really no coming to grips with the shifting demographics that get to why we lost those seats,” she said. “I’m very frustrated and I know other members are frustrated.”