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Rep. McHugh to Army Secretary, Another NY Special Election

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President Obama's selection of Rep. John McHugh (R-NY23) to be Secretary of the Army creates another special election for New York and another threat to Republicans' tenuous hold on just 3 House seats out of 29 from the state. In the March 31 special election for NY 20 (replacing Kirsten Gillibrand) Democrat Scott Murphy barely held the seat with 50.12% of the vote. The 23rd congressional district is similar in party registration to the 20th and past results suggest this should be a winnable seat for both sides.

The chart above shows that the 23rd and 20th are quite similar in registration- Republicans hold a 13 point edge over Democrats in the 23rd and a 15 point advantage in the 20th. On this basis, these are the two strongest Republican Congressional districts in the state.

Rep. McHugh has prospered in the district since his election in 1992, consistently winning well over 60% of the vote. But that margin reflects the advantages of incumbency a well as the partisan leanings of the district. Given the experience in the 20th, this could easily produce a close vote in the special election.

Gillibrand won the 20th in 2006, defeating incumbent Republican John Sweeney 53% to 47%. In 2008 Gillibrand cruised to reelection with 62%. And that in a district slightly more Republican by registration than is the 23rd. Gillibrand's success, however, didn't transfer easily to the special election in the 20th. Murphy prevailed after an extended recount with a 726 vote margin.

The chart shows that registration advantage alone has not  made for safe Republican seats in New York. While all three current Republican representatives come from districts with a Republican advantage, there are six seats held by Democrats despite a Republican registration advantage.

Based on recent results, incumbency and registration, a Democrat should win 48.4% of the vote in the 23rd to 51.6% for the Republican. By comparison, the same model predicts 47.5% for the Democrat in the 20th, a mark Murphy bettered by 2.6 points in the special election.  By this standard, the 23rd is just slightly more favorable for a Democrat than was the 20th. However, both districts would have been predicted to go Republican in a dead-even campaign for an open seat. The campaign, quality of the candidates and randomness in the model means the 23rd should be considered very winnable for both parties, despite McHugh's long running success in the district.

To change the focus, consider the 2008 Presidential results in the 23rd and elsewhere. The chart below shows the Democratic presidential vote by district party registration.
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Obama performed slightly better in the 23rd than he did in the 20th, winning the 23rd with 52% to 47% and the 20th with 51%-48%. Obama fared less well in 8 NY congressional districts, suggesting that the 23rd is willing to deviate from it's partisan Republican leanings. Obama over-performed in the 23rd, a district predicted to go only 47% Dem for president.

Taken together the recent congressional and presidential results say the 23rd should favor a Republican for the House seat, but by a small margin of 52 or 53 percent Republican. The experience in the similar 20th district shows that a Democrat can improve on that but the razor-close margin in March (and the April recount)  indicates the need for a strong candidate and a favorable campaign. Both parties look capable of nominating high quality candidates in the 23rd so much will hang on who decides to enter and how well they play the game.

Before leaving the 23rd, let's put Rep. McHugh in perspective ideologically. Using National Journal's 2008 ratings based on a wide range of roll call votes on economic, social and foreign policy issues, McHugh is more moderate than most in his party, but noticeably more conservative than any Democratic member of the House in 2008. First, let's compare foreign policy with economic ratings. Higher scores mean more conservative.

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McHugh is more moderate than most in his party on economic issues though relatively less so on foreign policy. A couple of Democrats have similar economic voting records but none come close to him on foreign policy.

On social issues McHugh is a tad further to the right though still easily in the left half of Republicans.
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While moderate for a Republican, McHugh's social issue voting record is clearly to the right of the most conservative Democrats in 2008.

The Democrats McHugh most closely resembles are Jim Marshall (GA-8), Nick Lampson (TX-22), Dan Boren (OK-2) and Travis Childers (MS-1), though none of these are as conservative as McHugh across all three dimensions of economic, social and foreign policy.

By picking McHugh for Secretary of the Army, Pres. Obama has reached beyond the ideological range of Democratic House members, a hard to deny display of bipartisanship, while staying to the moderate wing of the Republican party. Despite his voting record on social issues, McHugh is said to favor a review of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military, a subject that came up at Press Secretary Gibb's briefing. Exactly what McHugh's view is on the subject is not yet clear, other than calling for a review. With many on the left doubting Obama's commitment to gay rights this could become an important issue. By the same token, a Republican Army Secretary interested in reversing DADT would be well positioned to respond to conservative critics of such a change.

With this selection Obama has further advanced his claim of bipartisanship. In the process he has also transformed a safe Republican seat into a tossup or lean-Rep special election.