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Reynolds outmuscles tough foe But supporters say Jack Davis helped Democrats elsewhere by forcing the GOP to divert extra money, effort to 26th District

Jack Davis is back at his Newstead factory today, while Thomas M. Reynolds heads off for a victory vacation before reporting for a fifth congressional term in January.

But as political pundits comb through the aftermath of one of the most bruising congressional battles in state history, most agree that only Reynolds -- one of the GOP's top fundraisers and strategists -- could eke out a victory against a wealthy opponent riding the crest of a Democratic tsunami.

Reynolds, the four-term incumbent from Clarence, attracted almost twice as much as Davis' self-financed $2.25 million and erased a 15 percentage point deficit in the polls after the furor surrounding his links to the congressional page scandal. Across the state Tuesday, Democrats picked up three other House seats held by Republicans, but experts say Reynolds survived through political savvy, access to millions of dollars in contributions and a genuine October surprise -- a freak fall snowstorm.

"The snowstorm was an opportunity for him to shine," said John Zogby of Zogby International, who polled the race for The Buffalo News. "It was a powerful reminder that this is a guy who delivers.

"When the snow came down," he added, "Tom went up."

Reynolds' slim victory -- now narrowed to 51 percent to 49 percent -- is considered remarkable on many fronts, but mainly because Davis presented the most formidable challenge in the congressman's 30-year career.

Davis combined an "aw shucks" attitude of a political novice with his own fortune to take Reynolds to the wire in a district the congressman personally crafted for himself during reapportionment in 2002.

"He gave Tom a huge run in a Republican district," Zogby said. "In the final analysis, Jack Davis did all right."

Jim Schollaert, a Washington consultant to anti-free trade groups and a Davis adviser, said the effort proved invaluable to Democrats. Davis, the Republican-turned-Democratic industrialist from Clarence, not only tied down the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, but also forced him to scratch and claw for his own political life. Davis also made Reynolds suck more campaign dollars and GOP staff into Western New York than almost any other race in the nation.

"They had to spend so much time on him that all these other [Democratic] guys slipped through," Schollaert said, "and this was from an amateur in politics.

"They witnessed all this shock and awe power of the Republican Party, but it was all spent on one guy," he added.

Reynolds told Washington reporters Wednesday that the plan he devised for GOP congressional candidates around the land worked for him, though he didn't mention the millions of dollars he had and they didn't.

"Some of the people in the toughest races in the country have followed the same plan I did, which was: Go in, know your issues, make them local, disqualify your opponent, make it a choice between Candidate A and Candidate B, have the necessary resources to get the message out and then put together one of the most extensive get-out-the-vote efforts, certainly in my district, ever done," he said.

Reynolds also insisted that, while the war in Iraq and President Bush's unpopularity scored as top issues in many polls, he never saw it that way in the 26th Congressional District.

"First of all, I was in my district; I knew the issues," he said. "And it was all about local politics. I want to cut taxes to help keep jobs. I want to strengthen Social Security. . . . I believe in my record of bringing federal investment back to my district."

That drastically contrasted with his opponent, he said.

"My opponent did not believe in bringing federal investment to the district," he said. "I wholeheartedly have supported [that] and am very proud of the types of things I have brought back to the district."

Schollaert said Davis' sacrifice allowed colleagues to gain elsewhere. Without directly addressing these observations, Reynolds confirmed the notion that he had the money and manpower to pull off a victory.

"Even though he spent over $3 million on my head, we were able to raise enough money to get the message out," Reynolds said, "I put together the most extensive voter turnout operation, having 425 people on the ground the first day of the 72-hour [turnout drive], that has ever been done in my community. We had over 100,000 contacts door to door and personal phones, in addition to all the other energy."

Leonard R. Lenihan, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, said the Reynolds airwave effort amounted to one commercial every 15 minutes in the campaign's last stages. And federal records indicate the Republican National Committee financed much of it by dropping $724,000 on the race in its last two weeks.

"I've never seen such an assault like that," Lenihan said.

He said Davis acknowledged that he was a different kind of candidate, and that his unique views increasingly became a focus of the campaign. "Jack, being a nontraditional candidate, would say some things that could be nuanced and distorted," Lenihan said. "And in the end, Tom had the firepower."

But Schollaert said Davis accomplished much while continuing to run his heating element factory. And Davis scored his own success by preventing Reynolds from spending time and money elsewhere.

"We've got to get more people like Jack Davis who are successful, who should see what is happening around the country and get out there," he said. "Even if you lose, you help."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com and jzremski@buffnews.com

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