NY 26 Special Election Brings Deja Vu for Upstate New York

But outside groups don't see stakes as high.

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Upstate New Yorkers may be feeling a distinct sense of deja vu lately. The May 24 special election in the state's 26th Congressional District, in the far western part of the state, is drawing inevitable comparisons to the November 2009 special election in the 23rd district, which covers New York's northernmost region: a tight race in which a third-party challenger is forcing the Republican candidate to fight on two fronts, to the benefit of the Democrat. Heavy spending by outside PACs and national party committees was a key factor in the 2009 race, as in the current special election. However, a look at the data shows that the 2009 race involved far more outside spending than this year's.

It has been widely reported that outside groups are dropping major money in advance of the race in the 26th district, a seat open since married Republican Rep. Chris Lee resigned in February after it was revealed he was seeking women on Craigslist. However, current spending doesn't hold a candle to the 2009 race. Seven days before the special election, outside groups and party committees have reported spending over $1.2 million on ads supporting or opposing Democrat Kathy Hochul, Republican Jane Corwin, and Tea Party candidate Jack Davis. Seven days prior to the 2009 election, outside groups had reported spending more than $2.9 million on that race, in which Democrat Bill Owens defeated Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman and Republican Dede Scozzafava, who dropped out and threw her support to Owens days before the vote. Altogether, outside spending in that race totaled over $3.8 million, according to FEC data.

This apparent spending discrepancy comes despite the landmark January 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC, which opened the floodgates for corporations and unions to spend directly on political ads, and helping make the 2010 election season the most expensive midterm election of all time.

The spending totals from 2009 tower over this year's in part because of the third-party candidates' sources of support. In 2009, independent Doug Hoffman drew major support from social conservative groups like the Susan B. Anthony List and the National Organization for Marriage, as well as the economically conservative Club for Growth. In contrast, no outside groups have spent on behalf of the current third-party candidate, Jack Davis--who, despite nominally being the Tea Party candidate, has been shunned by state and national Tea Party organizations alike. and has also been heavily targeted by both Corwin and Hochul. However, Davis, a wealthy businessman who ran unsuccessfully for the seat as a Democrat in 2004, 2006, and 2008, has spent over $2.1 million of his own money on the race.

Michael Beckel, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan campaign finance watchdog organization, says that Davis' self-funding has certainly helped him to gain support, despite being a third-party candidate. "Name recognition is a huge factor in any race, and being able to pony up a few million dollars of your own money on election day is a big deal," says Beckel. His three prior runs for the seat also likely make him a known commodity to local voters. A recent Public Policy Polling poll shows Davis with 24 percent of potential voters, compared to 31 percent for Corwin and 35 percent for Hochul.

Spending in 2009's special election may have been more intense simply because the stakes were high for both parties. The Republican Party faced a hard-fought internal battle as conservative insurgent Hoffman took on moderate, establishment pick Scozzafava. Democrats, meanwhile, wanted as much power in the House as they could get, as "they had a lot of campaign promises they were hoping to move forward on," according to Beckel. This time around, however, he says, "With the Republicans in control of the House, one more vote for Republicans might not be as powerful for Republicans this year."

Of course, the final week before a race usually brings a deluge of advertising buys. so spending in New York's 26th will doubtless accelerate in the coming days. For example, a spokesman for American Crossroads, a conservative political action committee cofounded by former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove, says that the group "will announce in the coming days its plans for the final week" in the special election. The group has already spent nearly $370,000, according to the Federal Election Commission. So while the totals may not ultimately rival 2009's, residents of New York's 26th District can still expect one more week of nonstop political messaging.