August 9, 2018 • New York Times

To Unseat a Trump Republican, Democrats Embrace a Centrist Candidate

By Lisa W. Foderaro

Given the leftward tilt of the progressive groups that have sprung up across Central New York in the wake of the Trump presidency, Anthony Brindisi would seem an imperfect choice as their Democratic candidate for Congress.

After all, Mr. Brindisi has an A rating from the National Rifle Association. He has already forsworn his support for Representative Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, should Democrats flip the house in November. And he devotes more airtime to burnishing his bipartisan credentials than he does to criticizing President Trump.

But those qualities — in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 30,000 voters — are precisely why many progressive groups upstate have given their stamp of approval to Mr. Brindisi, 39.

They believe he is the kind of moderate Democrat who can unseat the Republican congresswoman, Claudia Tenney, an unabashed supporter of President Trump whose fiery rhetoric has become both a lightning rod locally and a late-night television punch line nationally.

“Our hashtag is #OneTermTenney,” said Sarah Reeske, a co-leader of Indivisible Mohawk Valley, quoting the rallying cry of a larger grass-roots coalition, called Knit the District. “We are all committed to getting rid of Claudia Tenney. But Anthony is not ‘Republican Lite’ by any means. He is independent.”

Mr. Brindisi, a state assemblyman, is one of four candidates in New York that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added to its Red to Blue roster. The program is targeting more than 60 candidates nationwide with extra support — logistical and financial — in the hope of capturing the House of Representatives.

And Mr. Brindisi has not disappointed. Despite his pledge to accept no corporate political action committee money, he has raised $1.94 million as of June 30 — exceeding Ms. Tenney’s haul by a hair. With no primary opponent, he has been able to train his focus on Ms. Tenney since last summer, and at least two polls show him leading her by several points.

With $1.4 million of cash on hand, compared with Ms. Tenney’s $1 million, he is spending liberally on thousands of lawn signs, and has just begun what will likely be an onslaught of television ads. Hundreds of volunteers are knocking on doors, mailing postcards and making calls. Every Wednesday night, two dozen supporters — Women for Brindisi — turn out to staff a phone bank in the campaign’s Utica office.

“We’re going to continue to communicate with the voters in a variety of ways,” Mr. Brindisi said in a phone interview. “We are seeing a tremendous level of energy on the ground.”

He has also benefited from outside money, with the House Majority Political Action Committee, for example, pouring more than a half-million dollars into opposing Ms. Tenney.

But winning the seat in the 22nd Congressional District is still a challenge of the highest order, given the advantages of incumbency and Ms. Tenney’s tendency to bask in the reflected glow of Mr. Trump, whom many Republicans in the district talk about with the affection usually reserved for a favorite uncle.

The president’s glow in the race will become more pronounced on Monday, when Mr. Trump is scheduled to come to Utica for a fund-raiser for Ms. Tenney. Her fervor for the president — some say she was “Trump before Trump” — may be part of a political calculation, some election experts say.

In 2016, Mr. Trump outperformed Ms. Tenney among Republicans, winning 55 percent of the vote to her 46 percent, which represented the second-largest margin of all House candidates that election.

“She looks at this district as very conservative because of the registered Republican advantage, and so she’s running to the right,” said Luke Perry, director of the Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research.

Mr. Perry points out, however, that the district, stretching from the Pennsylvania border all the way to Lake Ontario, has historically elected moderate Republicans to the House. They included lawmakers like Sherwood Boehlert, who served in Congress for 24 years, and more recently, Richard L. Hanna, who fended off a primary challenge from Ms. Tenney in 2014 and then chose not to run for re-election in 2016.

A three-term congressman who has donated to Mr. Brindisi’s campaign, Mr. Hanna offered a blistering critique of Ms. Tenney’s most incendiary comments of recent months. After the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead, Ms. Tenney told a radio interviewer that “so many of these people that commit the mass murders end up being Democrats.”

Mr. Hanna, who voted for Hillary Clinton over Mr. Trump in 2016, responded to a local newspaper by saying, “Claudia traffics in soft bigotry, hate and fear.” He added that her remarks were “among the most insensitive comments I’ve ever heard on an issue that’s so raw.”

Another prominent Republican, the Oneida County executive, Anthony J. Picente Jr., has gone public with his decision not to endorse her, calling her a “national embarrassment.”

Ms. Tenney’s campaign manager, Raychel Renna, released a statement defending the congresswoman’s tenure, asserting that she has a “record of battling the corrupt political elite in Albany and Washington, and fighting for middle-class families, small businesses and family farms.”

Mr. Perry observed that Ms. Tenney, a former member of the State Assembly, has emulated Mr. Trump “in part because that’s her political persona” — she was a Tea Party favorite — but also because she needs high turnout among Republicans in November. “The more she goes to the right, the more that will happen,” he said.

She still retains support among many of the party faithful, including Peter J. Sobel, who chairs the Oneida County Republican Committee. “She is out there working hard for the people of N.Y. 22 on a daily basis on Second Amendment rights, immigration and taxes — issues that are important to all of us, especially Republicans,” he said.

For Mr. Brindisi, stitching together support from resistance groups and Republicans will be the challenge in the waning months of his campaign. He recently aired his first two television ads.

One advertisement contradicted an attack ad that Ms. Tenney had aired in July, which blamed Mr. Brindisi for the economic crisis of 2008 (even though he did not join the Assembly until 2011) and branded him a supporter of Ms. Pelosi (despite his early and repeated rejections of her House leadership). The other ad by the Brindisi campaign featured his two young children, who talked about the “cool jobs” he had helped create, like positions at a test site for drones in Rome.

“I don’t want people voting for me because they dislike Claudia Tenney,” Mr. Brindisi said. “My message is being driven locally by things that I hear at town hall meetings, such as the ever-increasing cost of health care, the need for jobs, protecting Social Security and the opioid crisis.”

In trying to coax Republicans to vote for him, Mr. Brindisi has avoided too much criticism of Mr. Trump; he did, however, slam the president for separating immigrant children and their parents at the Texas border. And he has taken the occasional dig at Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a nemesis of upstate Republicans.

On guns, Mr. Brindisi voted against New York’s landmark SAFE Act, enacted after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The law banned assault weapons that contained any one of a list of military-style features.

“I always tell folks that I believe a representative can be a supporter of the Second Amendment and still support some common-sense reforms,” he said, highlighting measures like expanded background checks and removing firearms from people convicted of domestic violence.

That his stance on gun ownership has not alienated the most progressive factions of the district speaks to the disdain for Ms. Tenney, political observers say.

“You would expect the grass-roots organizations to be dissatisfied with his attitudes toward guns, and they’re clearly not,” said Mr. Perry of Utica College. “Why? Because they are so opposed to Claudia Tenney. They are not really pushing him for ideological purity. They like him as a candidate, and they think he can win.”

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