WASHINGTON ― It’s been hard to miss Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.), the bombastic first-term congresswoman whose penchant for making controversial statements has drawn comparisons to President Donald Trump and former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
The New York Republican drew a firestorm of criticism when, in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, she claimed that many people who commit mass murders “end up being Democrats.” She later blamed the “twist and smear” media for ginning up controversy over her remark, calling the press the “single biggest destructive force in our country.” After a number of Democrats chose not to stand and clap during portions of the president’s State of the Union address earlier this year, she claimed they didn’t “love our country.” And she has blamed the “deep state” over a $31,000 dining set bought for Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s office.
Tenney’s confrontational style stands in stark contrast to her Democratic challenger, New York state Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi. The 39-year-old lawmaker from Utica has largely flown under the radar in the national media despite announcing his campaign a nearly a year ago. He has preferred to keep a low profile, focusing instead on his district, which covers the small upstate cities of Rome and Utica. Last week, for example, he launched a decidedly anodyne petition calling for an investigation into internet rate hikes by a New York cable provider.
“Folks back home don’t want our community to make national news because of the controversial things that our representative says,” Brindisi told HuffPost on Thursday. “They want a representative who’s going to fight to get them better health care, who’s going to provide middle-class tax cuts, and who is going to stand up to corporate special interests that are driving the conversation in Washington.”
Brindisi’s approach appears to be working ― at least for the moment. He has led in several recent polls of the race. Moreover, he has outraised his GOP opponent ever since he entered the contest in June ― an unusual feat for a candidate who is taking on an incumbent. In the first quarter of 2018, Brindisi hauled in over $450,000 in contributions compared to just $258,000 for Tenney. His campaign currently also has about $200,000 more in cash on hand.
“It’s somewhat unexpected. Everybody thought it’d be a close race. To have him in the lead right now is pretty remarkable,” said Luke Perry, a professor of politics and government at Utica College.
While Brindisi has beat expectations, it’s still too early to tell whether he can succeed in ousting an incumbent in what has traditionally been a GOP district. Though a moderate, he has received backing from labor and education groups, as well as the Democratic establishment in the state. He’s liked by his colleagues in Albany and is well-known in northern portions of the congressional district. And he is likely to benefit from what many observers see as a coming blue wave in November.
But the race for New York’s 22nd Congressional District is expected to be one of the most competitive in the nation, and likely the top battleground in New York state. National Republicans and their allies will likely spend heavily to defend the seat. Brindisi, meanwhile, has run unopposed in his assembly district since 2011.
Tenney and the National Republican Congressional Committee have already sought to cast Brindisi as a liberal, describing him as a “socialist” who is beholden to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Moreover, Brindisi’s name recognition may be a problem in some areas of the district. About 65 percent of voters said in a recent Democratic poll that they did not know enough about the candidate yet to form an opinion of him.
“He’s got to try to convince constituents he’s a moderate when he’s being cast as the opposite. He’s gotta be careful not go too negative,” Perry said.
Pelosi’s long-awaited public announcement earlier this week that she will run for House speaker if Democrats win a majority this fall generated gleeful cheers among Republicans in Washington. The GOP has successfully used the California Democrat’s image and progressive politics to bash Democratic candidates in swing districts in prior contests. To that end, Tenney questioned this week whether Brindisi would support Pelosi, and further accused the Democratic leader of “bankrolling” his campaign.
Brindisi blunted that line of attack on Thursday, however, when he made clear that he would not support Pelosi as speaker if elected in November.
“I think it’s time for new Democratic leadership in Washington,” he told HuffPost, becoming only the latest Democratic candidate to say so.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, called Brindisi’s distancing of Pelosi politically expedient.
“Like a typical Albany machine politician, he’s proven once again that he will say anything to get elected,” NRCC spokesman Chris Martin said in a statement.
Brindisi has toed the Democratic Party line on a number of issues, including health care, education, taxes and the economy. He has blasted Tenney for voting to repeal Obamacare as well as a number of financial regulations, and he has criticized the congresswoman for her support of the recent GOP tax law, which slashed taxes on big corporations.
While he has not yet received support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which highlighted him as one of its “Red to Blue” candidates, a super PAC aligned with the Democratic Party has begun running ads in support of his campaign. The latest 30-second television spot from House Majority PAC blasted Tenney for voting to repeal Obamacare.
I firmly believe that a representative can support the Second Amendment and support common-sense reforms to try and cut down mass gun violence. Anthony Brindisi
But Brindisi, a self-described “strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” is notably to the right of many Democrats on the issue of guns. Although he supports expanding background checks on gun purchases, he earned a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association, the nation’s top gun lobby, thanks to his vote against the New York SAFE Act, a 2013 gun control law written in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. He believes several of the law’s regulations ought to be repealed because they overly restrict the rights of upstate New York’s gun owners and because it was rushed through the Legislature in the wake of the massacre.
“I firmly believe that a representative can support the Second Amendment and support common-sense reforms to try and cut down mass gun violence that occurs in our country,” he told HuffPost, emphasizing that he has not and does not intend to accept any donations from the NRA.
Asked whether he supported banning assault weapons, Brindisi demurred, however, stating that he believed the “conversation has to be how do we keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people.”
Brindisi wouldn’t be the first pro-gun Democrat from rural Trump country to seek office and win. In March, Conor Lamb won the special congressional election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District on a platform that included not supporting additional gun control measures. He, too, said he’d like to see House Democrats replace Pelosi as their leader. It helped inoculate him from GOP attacks that tied him to Pelosi ― and it may help Brindisi equally well.
For House Democrats, the path to regaining a majority depends on moderate candidates like Brindisi. Trump’s approval rating in upstate New York, especially, has declined, and party leaders are hoping they can woo Trump voters who haven’t benefited from GOP policies on health care, the budget and taxes.
“For Democrats to be successful nationally, they have to win districts like some of the ones in New York,” Perry said. “If Republican incumbents don’t get re-elected in places like here, it’s not a good sign the party more broadly.”