WASHINGTON – Republicans face the possibility of losing up to six House seats in New York this presidential election year, reversing their 2014 pickup of three seats.
All six districts have been represented by Democrats in recent years. Three are currently represented by freshman Republicans and two are open seats where incumbent Republicans are retiring.
That means New York State represents Democrats' best hope of significantly reducing the GOP's large majority in the House.
Whether those districts remain competitive as Election Day nears depends on some major unknowns, including which House candidates win in June 28 primaries and which presidential candidates are at the top of each ticket.
“It’s always the case that when you are talking about a competitive district that the particular nature of each campaign becomes very important,’’ Syracuse University political scientist Grant Reeher said. “By that, I mean the quality of candidates, the degree to which the local party has its act together and the nature of the local fundraising effort.’’
In the 22nd Congressional District covering the Mohawk Valley south to Broome County, the conventional wisdom among Democrats is that they have a better chance in the general election if politically conservative state Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney wins the Republican line over school teacher George Phillips. If that happens, the eventual Democratic nominee would appeal to the district’s many moderate voters.
Republicans believe they'll have an advantage in the 19th Congressional District in the mid-Hudson Valley and Catskills region if politically liberal law professor Zephyr Teachout wins the Democratic line over farmer Will Yandik.
Teachout, on the other hand, could match up better against Republican John Faso as an anti-corruption candidate running against the former Republican leader in the state Assembly. Faso also is facing a primary, with heating oil executive Andrew Heaney as his chief Republican opponent.
Democrats widely agree they'd do better in down-ballot races around the state if former New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is the party's presidential nominee.
If Republicans select a polarizing presidential nominee such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or businessman Donald Trump, it could be harder for Republican congressional candidates to win in New York, David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said Friday.
Political scientist Kevin Hardwick of Canisus College in Buffalo disagreed.
“I think Trump would energize a conservative base and that would especially help upstate,’’ Hardwick said. “You look at the impact that Carl Paladino had when he ran for governor (in 2010). He didn’t win obviously, but in this neck of the woods it was a good year to be a Republican.’’
Republican Reps. Chris Gibson and Richard Hanna are retiring to create the two open seats Democrats hope to pick up.
Gibson’s 19th Congressional District in the mid-Hudson Valley-Catskills region was won by President Obama in both 2012 and 2008. Part of the district was formerly represented by retired Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey and the other part used to be located inside the district represented by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand when she was a House member. Gillibrand was appointed to the Senate in early 2009 to succeed Hillary Clinton.
Hanna’s 22nd Congressional District in the Mohawk Valley of central New York runs south to Broome County. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney defeated Obama in the district in 2012, but by a razor-thin margin. And the district was in Democratic hands for two terms until Hanna beat Rep. Michael Arcuri in 2010.
Two other Democratic opportunities also involve formerly Democratic seats won in 2014 by freshman Republican Reps. John Katko in the Syracuse area and Lee Zeldin on eastern Long Island.
Katko’s district, which includes Wayne County in the Rochester suburbs, has flip-flopped from Republican to Democratic control in each of the last several elections. Obama won 57.2% of the vote in the district in 2012.
Zeldin’s district is more evenly divided politically. Obama won there with just 50.3% of the vote in 2012.
The last two possible Democratic pickups would probably require a wave election for Democrats to win. They are the North Country’s 21st Congressional District seat won by freshman Rep. Elise Stefanik in 2014 and the 23rd Congressional District seat in the Southern Tier held by Rep. Tom Reed since November 2010.
The best opportunity for a Republican congressional pickup is in the 3rd Congressional District on the North Shore of Long Island, where Democratic Rep. Steve Israel is not seeking re-election. But Obama won the district with 57.2% of the vote in 2012 and 58.1% in 2008.
Two less likely opportunities for GOP pickups are in the Hudson Valley’s 18th Congressional District represented by Democrat Sean Maloney and the 25th Congressional District in the Rochester area represented by veteran Democrat Louise Slaughter.
New York and California each has nine potentially competitive House races this year, more than any other state, according to the Cook Political Report.
But California has only three Democratic pickup possibilities. The other six seats offer Republicans opportunities to build on their majority.
Of the nine potentially competitive races in New York, Wasserman expects only five will turn out that way. Of those, four seats are currently held by Republicans.
Democrats have 188 seats in the House and need a net gain of 30 to win a 218-seat majority. Many pundits say that’s out of reach.
“It would take a miracle for Democrats to win the House this cycle," said Chris Pack, regional press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Only 59 of 435 House seats are rated potentially competitive this year by the Cook Political Report. Only 34 are considered competitive now.
In many states, House district boundaries are drawn to make them either safely Republican or safely Democrat.
“One of the reasons that New York seats are more competitive than other states is because they were not gerrymandered by the state legislators,’’ Hardwick said. “Part of the reason there aren’t many competitive seats in the nation in Congress is that they are so well gerrymandered. Gerrymandering today is so much better today than 40 years ago is because we have computer software that helps us do it. And it’s tough to find a competitive seat in any legislative body.’’
The limited playing field allows both parties to focus money and resources on the five-dozen or so House seats in play, making it less likely either side will suffer overwhelming losses, although wave elections do occur from time to time.