New York 21: Owens Retirement Moves Seat to Toss-Up

by Nathan L. Gonzales January 14, 2014 · 2:05 PM EST

New York Rep. Bill Owens’ retirement gives Republicans another good opportunity to take over a Democratic seat, if they don’t get in their own way. Some GOP strategists may still have nightmares over the special election in this region more than four years ago. But the 21st District might be coming open at just the right time for Republicans to take it back.

Owens was elected in a competitive special election in 2009 (in what was then the 23rd District) when President Obama appointed Republican Rep. John McHugh to be Secretary of the Army.

The race turned into one of the GOP’s most famous special election debacles. The establishment got behind moderate state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, but conservatives supported unknown accountant Doug Hoffman, who ran on the Conservative line even after he lost the Republican nomination to Scozzafava. Owens won with 48 percent, Hoffman received 46 percent, and Scozzafava received nearly 6 percent, even though she dropped out of the race days before the election and endorsed Owens.

In 2010, Owens was elected to a full-term, but squeaked out a 47.5 percent to 46.4 percent victory over Republican Matt Doheny. But the party was still divided as Hoffman ran again on the Conservative Party line, where he drew 6 percent.

In 2012, in the renumbered 21st District, Owens defeated Doheny 50.2 percent to 48.2 percent. This time, Doheny was on the Conservative line. A Green party candidate received 1.6 percent.

Democrats rightfully point out that Barack Obama won the district six points in 2008 and 2012, with 53 percent and 52 percent, respectively. But President George W. Bush carried the 21st, 52 percent to 46 percent, in his re-election effort, and the recent presidential numbers mask the large number of Republicans elected at the lower level in the region.

Republicans’ ability to takeover the district hinges on their ability to stay unified. And that, as always, is a question mark. But it’s important to remember that the local endorsement process is well underway, and Elise Stefanik has a head start against any Republicans who might consider getting into the race now that Owens is retiring.

The Saratoga County Republican Party endorsed Stefanik on Saturday. Of course that’s just one of the dozen counties that cover the expansive district, but Stefanik’s early campaign effort shouldn’t be discounted. The county chairmen planned to meet on Feb. 5 to try and come up with a consensus candidate.

Meanwhile, Democrats seem likely to look for someone in the mold of Owens when he ran in the special election. He was a fairly blank slate who Democratic strategists turned into a job creator to take advantage of the Republican infighting.

But holding this seat will be difficult for Democrats in the midterm elections. We’re changing our Rothenberg Political Report rating of New York’s 21st District to Toss-Up from Democrat Favored.