THE BLOG
01/27/2014 10:51 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2014

The Neglected District

AP

It has been a banner month for congressional retirements, with the departures of powerful Democrats George Miller from California and Jim Moran from Virginia dominating the news. Lost in the news, though, was the departure of Democratic Representative Bill Owens from the 21st congressional district in upstate New York, a district encompassing cities like Ogdensburg, Plattsburgh and Watertown. What has happened with Owens--and what might happen in the next election in his district--reflects major trends in our national political life. Because of the features of this district in the North Country, the party that successfully manages these national trends could have a compelling case study to promote nationally.

First, the dramatic move to the right by the Republican Party in the past few elections and the problems this has caused at the ballot box--particularly in the Northeast--has been illustrated quite vividly in this district. Before Owens, a Democrat had not represented parts of this district in the House of Representatives in 164 years. As other districts became more homogeneous, this district has stood out as one of the most evenly divided congressional districts in the country. In the next election, the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report/CQ Roll Call rates the district as one of its small number of "Tossups."

In an evenly divided district, though, the Republicans that were elected were moderate Republicans. John McHugh, who held the seat virtually unopposed for several decades before Owens, was a centrist Republican who resigned his seat in 2009 to serve in the Obama Administration. In the special election in 2009 to replace McHugh, Republicans nominated Dede Scozzafava, a state legislator who supported abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and labor unions. Republicans like Sarah Palin rejected her nomination, and supported a more conservative, Tea Party candidate, Douglas Hoffman, in the special election. Indeed, a term used in Republican circles now was invented to describe what happened to her candidacy: if conservative Republicans obstruct your candidacy as a Republican, you are "Scozzafavaed."

Several days before the election in 2009, in dramatic fashion, Scozzafava dropped out of the race and endorsed the Democratic nominee, Owens (she later accepted a cabinet position in the Administration of New York Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo). This district, though, remained resolutely centrist, and uncomfortable with the more conservative positions that Tea Party candidates like Hoffman presented. Owens won, making national headlines for turning this steadfastly Republican seat, and received similar attention for holding the seat in a rocky year for Democrats (2010) and again in 2012.

The move to the right by the Republicans in the district ceded the middle ground that the district liked so much to Owens, and he grabbed it. He joined the Center Aisle Caucus, an organization featuring centrists from both parties. Centrists are not all created alike, though, and so Owens's victory meant another crucial vote for the Democrats in the House. The day after he took his seat in 2009, he voted for the Affordable Care Act.

Second, this district represents what is happening in American politics because of what is happening with the next election--and how that could also hurt the Republican Party at the ballot box. A central Republican strategy, particularly for many of the most notable Republicans in the House and Senate, is to run candidates that combine local origins with national financial and political connections. Ted Cruz is a true Texan, living there as a child until he left for college. But he also worked at a Washington law firm, served on the George W. Bush presidential campaign in 2000, and worked in the Bush Administration before returning to Texas. Another prominent Republican in the Senate, Mike Lee from Utah, spent good portions of his childhood in Utah. As an adult, he worked for several years at a Washington law firm and clerked for Justice Samuel Alito in Washington, before returning to Utah.

This strategy, though, poses some risks. These candidates with local origins but national political sensibilities can face political problems when they return home. The positions they have adopted because of their network of national connections might not fit the conditions of their local district. These positions favorable with the national party will be hard to abandon for these candidates because of their personal and professional ties with and support by national financial and political forces.

This appears to be a possible story developing in the upcoming election to fill Owens's seat. Elsie Stefanik was raised in the North Country. After graduating from Harvard, she became a leading young Republican in Washington. She served in the Bush White House, as a key figure in drafting the Republican Party platform in 2012, and as the Director of Vice Presidential Debate Prep for Paul Ryan in 2012. She declared for this congressional seat before Owens retired.

As soon as Owens announced his departure, Stefanik's candidacy received a wave of attention--much of it about her ties to national Republican causes and politicians. Paul Ryan endorsed her the same week that Owens announced his retirement. The day after Ryan endorsed her, prominent national conservative magazine The Weekly Standard featured a blog post noting that the Tea Party-supported Hoffman, the conservative candidate who ran for the seat in 2009 and in 2010, also endorsed Stefanik. The national bandwagon for Stefanik has begun.

The problem, though, is that the national party leaders promoting Stefanik might represent national party sentiment that does not fit the local conditions of the North Country. Stefanik led the campaign to downsize government as part of her work on the 2012 Republican platform, and has made her campaign about the problems with the Affordable Care Act. These anti-government positions might have made her the darling of the national party, but run the risk of being out of touch with the preferences of her own district.

In upstate New York, the government is not as unpopular as national party figures might believe. The population relies on effective government programs for support. The local economy relies on agriculture, and therefore on agricultural programs sponsored by governments at the state and federal level. Weather damage has harmed local infrastructure, and federal aid has been crucial to rebuilding that infrastructure. The district has long featured major military facilities and a large military population that made the government a substantial local economic asset. As the Republican Campaign Congressional Committee started to realize these dynamics, it reached out to a local official as an alternative to Stefanik, but this local official declined to run.

Furthermore, what happens in this district (where I spent most of my childhood) with these national trends can provide lessons that would resonate nationally because of the features of this district. What happens in the North Country might not just be predictive, but powerful as a poster child for the rest of the country.

The 21st congressional district has struggled to adjust to the new American economy. The district's economy relies on older industries like agriculture and industry. It did rely heavily on the military infrastructure of the Cold War. The Plattsburgh Air Force Base was a central player in the Cold War. A strategic missile squadron was located there, and played an active role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, giving President John F. Kennedy a military negotiating tool with Nikita Kruschev. The base provided stable economic activity--until it closed in 1995 (Fort Drum, located elsewhere in the district, remained open).

Local economies benefit from having new people move in to bring new ideas, new industries, and thus new jobs. More than 40 percent of Americans live in states outside where they were born. In some states with growing economies, like Florida, that number reaches 65 percent. In the 21st congressional district fewer than 20 percent of local residents were born out of state. It is time that talented local residents are joined by talented newcomers to the area.

There are many other districts like this in the country, and some of them receive lots of attention for how they are navigating the post-industrial economy. But these districts have urban economies that can transition more seamlessly to the information economy. We might hear a lot about places like Detroit, but we do not need to. These areas are much more likely to recover easily than the population of this New York congressional district.

Why this congressional district might be a compelling case study, then, is that it represents a quite common--but quite commonly neglected--feature of current American economic life. There are many Americans in many districts outside of major urban areas struggling to adjust to the new economy, like those in upstate New York. Without an anchor like Detroit, though, our national media and political discussions neglect these districts.

Facing difficult situations, voters in many of these districts are genuinely open to politicians that speak to their economic needs. Plattsburgh, a major city in this district, elected an openly gay Republican mayor fifteen years ago in part because of his economic recovery plan. The political party that shows it can run reasonable candidates that respond to these local conditions is the party that can have success in these districts.

Given the potential resonance of these features of this district, what has happened with the Republican Party and what might happen in November are all the more interesting. If you want a compelling story about our national political life as the politics of 2014 begin--and what has been and might happen with the Republican Party--look to the North Country.

David Fontana is Associate Professor of Law at George Washington University School of Law.

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