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Democrats’ Chances in the 25th CD - Less than Favorable
Democrats’ Chances in the 25th CD - Less than Favorable

Rochester, NY (March 23, 2012) --  First, a disclosure: several years ago, this author had the honor to work as an intern in Louise Slaughter’s district office in Rochester. Beyond merely helping do research for constituents and assisting staff with their duties, I also had the good fortune to work on Friday, the day the Congresswoman would often return to Rochester (and to the office). Frequently, she would hand me her copy of the Washington Post, knowing I was an inveterate political news junkie (and an avid reader of the Post -- before one could easily read it online). I share this to make the point, that I am one of thousands of local residents who have met, worked with, and had the good fortune to learn from the Congresswoman. Agree or disagree with her politics, she is a dedicated public servant and a decent lady.

Too often, personal feelings or political preferences shade our perceptions and our analysis of political scenarios. In this case, both would push me toward assessing the contest between Slaughter and Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks in Slaughter’s favor. Unfortunately, that is not the sense that I have when I consider the potential outcomes of this contest. To the contrary, I see Slaughter as slightly unlikely to win this November. That being the case, Democrats’ strategic options are very limited.

Why Slaughter is in trouble
Republicans and conservative commentators will say Slaughter is in trouble because her record has finally caught up to her: she is too liberal for this area. This is obviously true for conservatives, however it is probably not that relevant to most voters. Yes, she has been a reliable Democratic vote and a consistent liberal. But she has also maintained a steady presence in the district (though not in person as much as she used to -- likely because her district has been split between Rochester and Buffalo for the past ten years). But she has maintained a close connection to voters and has used her Harlan County, Kentucky accent to maintain a down-home touch to her constituent service. Slaughter is not suffering from any great alienation of her voters; she is liked and respected across the region.

Given this, why would voters abandon Slaughter? Democrats argue they will not, but I disagree. Here are the factors that make me worry that Louise is unlikely to hang on to her seat this year:

Let’s put the issue on the table: Slaughter has always been a vigorous, energetic legislator. But the fact remains that she is 82 years old and is being asked to engage in one of the most grueling campaigns of her career. Not just in terms of campaigning, but late nights of phone calls to donors and fundraising events. Slaughter may not be your typical octogenarian, but this race will be a consuming one -- time will tell if she is up to the challenge.

Related to, but distinct from her age, is Slaughter’s tenure -- her years of service. Incumbency is often an advantage, and Slaughter will certainly tap into those advantages (expect a parade of Congressional colleagues to visit Rochester to support a woman they have worked with for over two decades). Yet this may be a year when 26 years in Congress is not much of an asset. Some people -- even some who have voted for Slaughter in the past -- are likely to grimace and say “it’s time for someone new.” It is far less likely that voters will break her way because of her length of service. It is at best a neutral factor, at worst a liability.

Connection to Congress
Congressional approval is at an all-time low. Polls in the past months had Congressional approval in the single digits. Although it is a well-worn saying that people run for Congress by running against Congress, it is difficult for Slaughter to pull such a trick. Far easier is Brooks’ task: Brooks can throw rocks at Congress all day and claim she will change things; Slaughter cannot do that with credibility. Slaughter can -- and will -- point with pride to the support her STOCK Act has received (legislation that discourages members of Congress from trading securities with insider knowledge). But this one legislative triumph may not be sufficient to overcome the deep disgust many voters have with Congress. Slaughter may indeed be one of “the good guys” -- but this year may be one in which good members are lost with bad ones. There is little consolation to Slaughter in that.

Voting Record
Any opponent, Brooks included, would be foolish not to contrast themselves with their opponent’s record. In this case, Brooks will be able to pick apart every vote of Slaughter and be free from having had the same obligation to vote on those issues. So, Brooks can note Slaughter’s votes on health care, on taxes, on trade policy and other issues but Brooks herself will not be subject to such comparisons. One can imagine ads already: Slaughter voted for tax increases umpteen times, Brooks has held the line on taxes in Monroe County. Such a contrast will remind Brooks’ suburban supporters that she is “one of them” -- not someone who will go to Washington and raise our taxes. It is a simple and effective message.

No advantage as a homogamete
Slaughter, who was a microbiology major and holds a master's in public health, understands the advantage she has had as a homogamete (hint: two X-chromosomes). In most of her campaigns, she has run as a female against a male. One of her closest re-elections was against a female candidate: Slaughter defeated Renee Forgensi Davison by 16 points in 1994. Slaughter also ran against a female candidate in 2010 -- but defeated Jill Rowland quite handily: 65%-35%. Still, her 30-point margin against Rowland was lower than her margins against her opponents in 2008 (56 points), 2006 (46 points) and 2004 (48 points). In her current district, only her 2002 contest was closer (25 points) -- but that was her first time running in the Buffalo-Rochester district; a large share of constituents did not know her. In short, Slaughter has an advantage running against male candidates because some voters are reluctant to trade her for (yet another) white male Congressman. Against Brooks, Slaughter will lose this edge -- voters can still protect the legacy of Susan B. Anthony by supporting Brooks.

A Rough Season
While 2012 may not be 2010 -- a year when Republicans "shellacked" the President's party -- it is still a fairly sedate time. Obama's re-election odds hover around 50%. It is likely that voters will seek change in November, but that their message will be complex and very mixed. If Obama wins re-election, it will not be due to a national tide (as in 2008), but due to a number of scattered victories that, in total, lead to his re-election. That means Congressional candidates will be on their own -- but confronting the same national mood. Brooks holds an advantage in that respect, offering voters a new option for Washington representation. Ticket-splitting will abound. When that happens, the strongest candidates are the ones who are already well-known: in this case, Slaughter would normally be advantaged -- but that advantage shrinks to virtually nothing against an equally well-known Brooks.

Election data
In sum, Slaughter has several factors pointing against her. But the most important consideration is how voters are likely to behave. Do recent elections spell doom for Slaughter? Not exactly, but the 2008 election, the 2010 Republican tide, Brooks’ victory in 2011 and the mood of the voters in 2012 all point to danger for Slaughter.

In 2008, Monroe County was divided into 4 Congressional districts: Dan Maffei (D) ran against Dale Sweetland (R) for retiring Rep. Jim Walsh’s Syracuse-based seat; Ann Kryzan (D) ran against Chris Lee (R) for retiring Rep. Thomas Reynolds’ Western NY seat; Eric Massa (D) challenged incumbent Rep. Randy Kuhl for the Southern Tier district that included southern Monroe County and Louise Slaughter (D) ran against Jill Rowland (R) in a district based largely in Rochester and parts of some surrounding suburbs.

Looking at those results, Democrats could feel encouraged: that year, summing up most of the towns and city of Rochester votes for the major party candidates (including their votes on minor party lines), Democrats’ Congressional candidates won by a 63%-37% margin (a total vote margin of about 78,000 -- of which about 50,000 came from the city).

But it is important to note that in these same areas, the Presidential vote was closer: Obama defeated McCain by a 60%-40% margin (a total vote margin of 65,000 of which the same 50,000 margin came from the city). In other words, in an election year in which Democrats did well, the Democratic presidential ticket ran behind its congressional ticket locally. Or, put another way: voters were more supportive of Republicans in the Presidential race than in Congressional races.

This has two important implications: first, it means that local voters had a Democratic tilt in their national vote (for President), but that tilt was more Republican than their votes for Congress indicated. Second, it also means that local voters had the potential to vote for Republican Congressional candidates but likely did not because none of the Republican Congressional candidates was a strong candidate native to the area. None of those Congressional candidates was Maggie Brooks.

The messages
The messages that candidates will use in the campaign are fairly easy to predict. Maggie Brooks will tout her personal competence, the strength of the county’s finances, the consistent tax rate and Brooks’ image as a problem solver, not a partisan politician. Brooks will challenge the necessity of keeping Slaughter in office, painting her as a partisan of a bygone era. Slaughter will remind voters of her knowledge of the district, her strong character and her independence. She will cite the scandals of the Brooks administration, much as Sandra Frankel did in her 2011 challenge.

Ironically, Slaughter’s best shot is to try to create an almost absurd image in people’s minds: link Brooks to the Republican majority by claiming that Brooks will be expected to vote in lock-step with the Tea Party crowd -- then contrast that with Louise, the people’s Representative, “calling ’em as she sees ‘em." The absurdity of such a tactic, of course, is that Louise is a member of the Democratic leadership and is committed, for all practical purposes, to vote with the party; Brooks, who will indeed be expected to vote for Speaker John Boehner, will actually have more latitude to vote her conscience. But messages count -- and if Slaughter can convince voters that Monroe County Maggie will not be DC Maggie, voters might stick with Slaughter.

For those Democrats who think Brooks will be brought down by Robutrad, the airport and other county scandals, think again. Even Democratic County Leg leader Ted O’Brien has conceded the stretch involved: in a recent interview, O’Brien conceded that Brooks herself is not implicated in scandals, but they did happen on her watch. This line did not work for voters when it was actually relevant (should Brooks continue to be County Executive?); it is less likely to work when voters will be considering whether Brooks should go to Washington.

Early prediction: Brooks wins by a surprising 54%-46% margin.

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Member Opinions:
By: saman1 on 3/30/12

As the district is drawn, Maggie beat Sandy Frankel 54%-46%. You really think Louise doesn't beat Sandy's number? In an off-off-off year, an underfunded Democrat got 46%, Louise will not be underfunded. City voters accounted for 16% of the electorate in that race, while in a presidential election, city voters will make up 20-22% of the vote. Maggie got a free pass from the media, she won't this time. She got away with calling Sandy a career politician (coming from someone who has now held 3 political offices and been an elected official for 20 years), she won't get away with that in this race. Maggie has been teflon for a while, she won't be here. Maggie is popular but so is Louise and this will be really close. I predict Louise 50.5% - Maggie 49.5%. Yes that close.

Saul Maneiro

By: tfb on 4/2/12
Age is the only imponderable here. And I doubt that is enough. Maggie's numbers were underwhelming against Sandy, and less so in what remains in this district, as Saul points out. But it will not be close. Louise will win by 10 points. In fact, I predict that the GOP will poll this race around October, see that it is lost, and pull their money out of it. The thing we have to worry about is the Collins/Hochul race.

Tom Brennan
Rpochester, NY

By: admin on 4/2/12

Good analysis. Sandy may have been underfunded, but even so, her attacks didn't seem to take. As I noted in my article, this was essentially confirmed when Ted O'Brien noted that the strategy would be to hang the scandals around Maggie -- even though it isn't clear what specific role she has had in any malfeasance. The media can take up that cause too, but unless Maggie can be shown to be actively involved in any of these shenanigans, I just don't see how it hurts her.

I appreciate your bold prediction. Now we're both on the line. If you're right, it's going to be a long election night in Monroe County.

Anyone else want to make a prediction?

Aaron Wicks
Co-Publisher, Smugtown Beacon
Rochester, NY

By: tfb on 4/3/12
Aaron, if I'm wrong I'll buy the BBQ next time, at Red, Hot and Blue (founded by Lee Attwater)if you're in DC.

The scandals are not Maggie's problem. Enough swing voters just don't buy that narrative about Maggie. What they will buy is the notion that they can have Louise and Maggie by keeping them in place. Voters are pretty savy about seeing self interest in these things. Maggie keeps their taxes low, but there is a lot to be gained by having somebody in congress with the stature and seniority of a Louise Slaughter. It would take years to replace this. Look at how well Clinton, Gore, Kerry, and Obama did in Monroe County. Hell, Carter beat Reagan here! This is a county that likes incumbents, and seeks out the most seemingly moderate choice. Were this a wave year, like 2010, I'd worry. But it isn't looking like that. The presidential race will be close and hard fought. The GOP base is particularly demanding this year, forcing Republicans at the federal level to take positions that will hurt them in November. Maggie's early indications that she has not yet even thought through her positions on many issues, does not bode well for her. This is the big league now The Brooks/Slaughter campaigns will be well funded and staffed, and both are personally well liked. The partisans will vote as expected. But the middle 20% or so will choose Slaughter by a comfotable margin, and not even have all that much difficulty deciding. Of course, it will be fun to watch.

Tom Brennan
Rochester, NY

By: admin on 4/3/12

Tempting me with BBQ is a devious tactic...

You might a good point about Monroe County's love of incumbents. We are definitely not keen on throwing out the rascals. And that inclination might save Louise. But I think it's asking a lot of voters to suggest they keep a liberal Democrat in Washington and a Republican in the County -- I think politics is just getting too polarized for voters to respond to that logic. Why not promote tax-cutting Maggie to Washington and also have a tax-cutting replacement (perhaps Cheryl Dinolfo)? Isn't that even better -- especially since Brooks will be in the majority and will be a crucial swing vote? Is Slaughter's incumbency that significant now that she's in the minority? I don't think savvy voters would buy that.

But regardless of what happens, BBQ should be consumed in copious quantities. That much I know.

Aaron E. Wicks
Co-Publisher, Smugtown Beacon
Rochester, NY

By: saman1 on 4/4/12

What makes you believe Maggie will be a swing vote? As stated in a previous post on this site, she's done nothing to show that she strays at all from Republican orthodoxy.

Maggie's weakness is not in scandal but it'll be very easy for a well funded campaign to tie Maggie to lunacy that has become national Republican "philosophy".

Saul Maneiro

By: admin on 4/6/12
It's time for Louise to retire. She has been exactly what you said, a consistant liberal vote. This is not a liberal area. Hopefully Maggie will win and then introduce a bill for term limits!

Patti Copas
Rochester, NY

By: Terry_Schnurr on 4/8/12
I agree with Tom Brennan. This will be a hard-fought race, but barring a serious mistake or misfortune, Louise Slaughter should win it comfortably.

Despite Ms. Copas' perception, the new 25th District is a liberal area. According to New York State Board of Elections figures, enrolled Democrats outnumber enrolled Republicans in the district by about 4-3. According to the New York Observer, Barack Obama and Joe Biden outpolled John McCain and Sarah Palin in the new district 59-40, making it the state's second most Democratic district outside the Five Boroughs.

The steady progression of scandals involving those with whom Ms. Brooks has surrounded herself has taken a toll on her reputation - if not for honesty, at least for competence and judgment. Perhaps the reason she is still perceived as Teflon® is that she hasn't faced as vigorous an opponent as the one she does now since she ran against Stephanie Aldersley in her first race for the County Legislature.

My good friend Saul Maneiro is right, though, that Ms. Brooks' greatest obstacle is the national Republican Party -- an obstacle that will be exacerbated if presumptive nominee Mitt Romney repeats John McCain's mistake of choosing a running mate to buttress his right flank- or if Rick Santorum finds a way of doing what the conventional wisdom tells us is now impossible.

Terry Schnurr
Minneapolis, MN

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