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Progressive Rep. Maurice Hinchey Faces Tough Re-Election Race, Aided By Influx Of Outside Spending

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Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D), first elected to Congress in 1992, hasn't seen a tough re-election battle since 1994, the year of the Republican revolution that swept so many Democrats out of power. He has been a solid progressive in Congress, voting for health care reform and the stimulus. But this year, he is facing a serious challenge from Republican George Phillips and a well-funded advertising blitz from conservative independent expenditure organizations, making the race tighter than many Democrats would like to see it.

"They're targeting the race because they know when Congressman Hinchey is re-elected, he's someone who's going to stand up to corporate greed, and he's somebody who's going to stand up for middle-class families," said Hinchey spokesman Michael Morosi. "He's not going to sit there [and back] special tax loopholes for big corporations. He's going to stand up for working people, and they want a candidate who's going to support tax cuts for outsourcers."

Hinchey is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was an outspoken opponent of the Iraq invasion in 2003 and was one of just a handful of lawmakers who signed on to Rep. Dennis Kucinich's (D-Ohio) resolution to impeach President Bush.

"The billionaires and corporate special interests have gone all in this year," said Hinchey in a statement to The Huffington Post. "They're spending unlimited amounts of cash to challenge Democrats in every way and everywhere. They know very well that if they are successful in establishing a new majority in Congress, they'll make every penny of their upfront investment back through less regulation of Wall Street, privatization of Social Security, more special interests tax loopholes, and fewer rules to protect our environment and public health."

In the past couple of weeks, the conservative group American Crossroads dropped $300,000 into New York's 22nd congressional district in opposition to Hinchey. Now, Phillips has more cash on hand than the Democratic incumbent, and his campaign acknowledges that the outside money has definitely helped.

"We couldn't afford to do any TV, just a little bit of radio and direct mail," said Phillips communications director Jazz Shaw. "So I think anything that brings up some of the negatives about Maurice Hinchey's dismal performance on the economy was good for us. We didn't get to have any say in that because these people... never contacted us, we never contacted them... Lots of people watch TV, so yeah, I think it probably has opened up some people's eyes to some things they might not have considered."

John McNulty, assistant professor of political science at Binghamton University, said that TV ads in NY-22 are "dirt cheap," so the American Crossroad investment could be a significant factor in the race.

American Crossroads has also received a significant amount of funding from the natural gas industry, and a major issue in the race is whether to allow natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale Formation. Phillips supports the drilling, and Hinchey has urged stricter oversight. He has introduced the FRAC Act, which would require natural gas drilling companies to disclose the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing, for example, and ensure they comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The Hinchey campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) are circulating an internal poll done by Abacus Associates showing the Democratic lawmaker with a double-digit lead. Shaw said the poll oversampled Democrats. An internal poll for the Phillips campaign about a month ago put the two men in a dead heat, and the political website Real Clear Politics recently changed NY-22 from "likely Democratic" to "leans Democratic."

"Knowing he's losing momentum, Democrats sent Bill Clinton and other party leaders in to stump for him," said National Republican Congressional Committee Spokesman Tony Mazzola in a statement to The Huffington Post, referring to Hinchey's campaign rally with Clinton earlier this month. "It's a race that is becoming more and more competitive, and given Hinchey's loyal support for Speaker Pelosi's tax-and-spend agenda, it is a race to watch as we edge closer to Election Day."

"I don't think anybody knew this was a race until Clinton came here," said McNulty. "Bill Clinton didn't come up upstate New York to see the leaves change. He's here because Hinchey saw an internal poll that scared him half to death, and he brought Clinton up here to basically try to mobilize college kids and just generally get the base out -- and maybe alert people that Hinchey's in a real race here. Clinton, to his credit, did a good job with that."

In 2008, Phillips lost to Hinchey by a two-to-one margin. But this year, his campaign is arguing that the political environment has done a complete 180-degree flip.

Shaw pointed to increased Democratic turnout and excitement for President Obama, in addition to the fact that President Bush was so unpopular, as a reason that Phillips lost so heavily in 2008.

"Even though Maurice Hinchey is trying desperately to do so, it's kind of hard to keep blaming George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled majority after all this time," said Shaw. "I think people have noticed, well, you're in charge now, and things aren't any better. So the wave seems likely to rock the water in the bowl; if it goes one way, it eventually goes the other way."

Both privately and publicly, Democrats say they believe Hinchey will still be able to win. But the congressman has been calling fellow Democratic lawmakers and trying to shore up funds.

"What we have is a situation where we didn't expect a massive $300,000 ad buy that came at the last minute from this third-party group, and in order to make sure we have the resources to compete and ensure that they couldn't pull a fast one on this campaign, we had to reach out to as many people as possible to make sure we have all the funds we need," said Morosi.

He added that while the influx of outside spending on the conservative side -- very little has been done on the Democratic side, with the exception of some funds from the DCCC -- has forced the campaign to focus more on advertising, ultimately it "hasn't changed the dynamic of this race in a fundamental way."

Hinchey joins other progressive Democratic incumbents such as Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.) and Raul Grijalva (Ariz.) in unusually competitive races this year. As The Huffington Post previously reported, several Democrats in swing districts are trying to buck the tide, showing that they can win a tough race by standing up for core progressive values.

Clinton has been making several appearances on behalf of Democrats in upstate New York, with Rep. John Hall's (D) campaign announcing on Monday that the former president will be campaigning with him at a rally on Saturday. Democrats controlled 27 out of 29 districts in the state (before Eric Massa stepped down from NY-29, which now remains vacant), with many wins coming in traditionally Republican, or tough swing, districts upstate in 2008.

"You had a lot of Democrats elected in 2006, and either elected or re-elected in 2008, who are in very very marginal districts," said McNulty. "So when these guys suddenly don't have a wind at their back, i.e. massive disapproval for the Republican president, they're at the least very very vulnerable."

UPDATE: Morosi sent in a statement in response to the difference in cash on hand: "The reason our cash on hand number seems low is because we have already purchased the bulk of our paid communications. Phillips, on the other hand, has not. With just eight days to go the cash on hand figures don't tell much of a story unless you consider what has already been purchased."

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