Democrats Hope Voters Remain in Empire State of Mind

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UTICA, N.Y. — The meanest words you can throw at two-term New York Rep. Michael Arcuri is that he's gone Washington.

The 51-year-old Democrat sleeps in his Capitol Hill office during the week and returns home every weekend to Utica, where his wife, Sabrina, and their three children live. Arcuri identifies with his hometown, a former textile manufacturing hub in this sprawling, central New York congressional district.

Don't tell this incumbent that he's part of the establishment, especially in an election year that's been cruel to candidates who smack of the status quo.

"If you look at who I am and what I do, nothing could be further from the truth," Arcuri said in a recent interview.

Yet even that argument may not spare Arcuri in a campaign season that always was going to be tough for President Barack Obama's party. [See who is giving money to Arcuri's campaign.]

New York may be strongly Democratic — there are just two Republicans in its 29-member House delegation — but the party could lose as many as eight House seats in the state. Arcuri is an imperiled Democrat, struggling for political survival in an economically ailing area that long ago grew skeptical of politicians and their promises.

Nationally, Republicans need to capture 40 Democratic seats to reclaim the House. They see several opportunities in New York, starting with the western New York seat represented by Rep. Eric Massa, who resigned in March amid an investigation into whether he sexually harassed male staffers.

Privately, Democrats have all but given up hope of retaining that seat. Tom Reed, the Republican mayor of Corning, looks like a sure bet.

The GOP also has set its sights on House seats on Long Island and Staten Island, as well as districts near Albany, along the Canadian border and in the lower Hudson Valley.

Like Arcuri, Reps. John Hall and Scott Murphy rode the national Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008 to make it to Washington. This year is a more difficult political climate.

Arcuri's rural, blue-collar district has slightly more registered Republicans than Democrats. It fits the profile of the kind of district that GOP strategists believe they can recapture.

When he won in 2006, Arcuri became only the second Democrat in 120 years to hold the seat. Since then, he's been slowed by fundraising difficulties and faces a tough rematch with Republican Richard Hanna, 59, a wealthy businessman who came close to victory in 2008 despite Obama's presence at the top of the ticket.

Obama narrowly won the district but lost Oneida County, its major population center.

Arcuri also has had to defend a series of controversial votes: for the federal stimulus program and the Wall Street bailout, both of which angered conservatives, and against Obama's health care overhaul.

Arcuri was just one of five House Democrats to vote against the final health bill after backing the House version last fall. The move infuriated some Democrats and labor activists such as the powerful Service Employees International Union, which has withdrawn its support for the incumbent.

Hanna has seized on the vote to cast Arcuri as a flip-flopper. "Mr. Arcuri's vote was indefensible — he's abandoned his base in the cruelest way," Hanna said in an interview. "If you talk about health care for three years as the Holy Grail and then turn around and vote against it, it's completely unprincipled."

The boyish and otherwise affable Arcuri becomes visibly irritated when asked to explain his vote switch. He said he voted "no" the second time because the bill did not include some of the cost containment measures included in the first version.

"I am so tired of people inside the Beltway and in New York City telling everyone how I should vote and how people in my district think. It's dramatically unpopular up here," Arcuri said.

His district, like much of upstate New York, has suffered for years from a weak economy and a shrinking population as young people have left in search of opportunities elsewhere. The greatest source of growth in Utica comes from its refugee center, which has drawn immigrants from around the world.