The rolling farmlands and shrinking small towns of the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes looked, for a time, to form one of the battlegrounds where control of the House might be decided.
But now, two of the three big prognosticators that rate House races rank the 23rd District battle between Republican incumbent Tom Reed and Democrat challenger John Plumb as likely to go the Republican’s way. And the third doesn’t even rank the race as competitive.
While Donald J. Trump, the candidate at the top of the GOP ticket, may be hurting some other Republican candidates across the country, he appears to be helping Reed and other Republicans in his native New York. And that fact further narrows the Democrats’ already slim chance of winning the 30 or more seats they need to reclaim control of the House.
“Initially, it looked like the Democrats had a half dozen real pickup opportunities in New York, but now it’s winnowed down to a couple or a few,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. “It’s a good example of how Donald Trump doesn’t have the same impact down-ballot on every House district.”
By no means is the race in the 23rd district the only one in the state where a Republicans appears to have made inroads in recent months. In the Syracuse-based 24th District, Republican Rep. John Katko started the year as a top Democratic target. But a recent Siena College poll found him with a 19 point lead.
And on the eastern tip of Long Island, Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin – also seen as vulnerable earlier in the year – held a 15 point lead in a recent Newsday poll.
In suburban districts packed with college graduates and working women, Trump can weigh down other Republican candidates, Gonzales said.
But in places like Olean and Geneva – struggling old-time towns filled with neighborhoods that look like they need to be made great again – Trump’s message resonates to the benefit of Republicans like Reed.
“It will probably help Reed a whole lot to be associated with Trump in the western part of the district,” where Trump’s tirades against free trade hit home with voters, said Jim Twombly, a professor of political science at Elmira College.
Twombly, who has been watching the 23rd district race closely, said Reed has handled the delicate issues that Trump raises better than most Republican candidates nationwide.
“I think Tom Reed is getting the best of both worlds with regard to Donald Trump,” Twombly said. “He looks like he’s admonishing him for bad behavior, but he doesn’t go so far as to aggravate the Trump voters.”
Reed’s balancing act
Repeatedly throughout the campaign, Reed has criticized things that Trump has said and done. After a 2005 video surfaced showing Trump bragging about groping women, Reed took Trump’s word that he didn’t really do that, but added: “Now the rhetoric and the talk is wrong in and of itself. And we were very clear about that and we remain very clear about that.”
Plumb, in contrast, said in an interview last week: “I don’t think any good man who is in a position of electoral responsibility can still be support and champion Trump after those sexual assault comments on that tape.”
The differences between Reed and Plumb go far beyond their differences about Trump, and they could be seen on the campaign trail last week.
Taking questions at the Eden Heights senior living community in Olean on Thursday, Reed, 44, portrayed himself as a worker-bee congressman, saying his office was willing to help anyone with a problem with Social Security or Medicare.
Now ending his third term in Congress, Reed of Corning brags about the 10,000 constituent cases his office has resolved and the 200 town hall meetings he has conducted across the sprawling 23rd district. And he aims to connect with voters in campaign ads that portray him chatting with his sister Mary at the kitchen table.
“I think he comes across as one of us to the voters in the district, and that’s an acceptable brand,” Twombly said.
In Washington, Reed serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. From that perch, he pushed through legislation in 2014 creating a series of manufacturing “hubs” – public-private partnerships aimed at creating factory jobs. And he talks about working next year on comprehensive tax reform, saying: “The tax code is broken for everyone.”
Plumb makes his points
To hear Plumb tell it, though, Reed isn’t really getting much done. Speaking at a Democratic rally in Geneva on Thursday night, Plumb called Reed “one of the worst members of Congress.”
“He revels in the dysfunction of the government and he comes around and complains about it,” Plumb said. “Well, guess what: you’re breaking it. Start fixing it.”
That’s what Plumb, 46, aims to do. A captain in the Navy reserves and a former Pentagon and National Security Council aide, Plumb returned to his native Jamestown area last year to run for Congress.
Along the way, he crafted an extensive agenda along the way that’s aimed at fixing what ails the 23rd district and, in fact, all of rural America: poor cell phone service and poor Internet access, bad trade deals, the opioid crisis.
It’s an unusually ambitious and detailed plan for a prospective first-term member of Congress, but in an interview, Plumb said he would work with both Democrats and Republicans to push parts of his plan into law. What’s more, he said he’s had Trump voters tell him that they’ll vote for him, all because Plumb, like Trump, is promising change.
“I actually don’t think our rural areas are being served very well,” Plumb said. “I don’t think Democrats or Republicans have done a good job of it. It’s time someone did.”
While Plumb has put 65,000 miles on his car driving around the district, Reed has worked hard to portray his opponent as “D.C. John,” an outsider who left his hometown of Randolph long ago and who, in a television interview, wouldn’t even commit to living in the district if he were to lose. Asked about that comment, Plumb noted that he was thinking about being called up for service in the Navy, which has happened before.
Forecasters favor GOP candidates
Political pros heap praise on Plumb as an excellent, well-qualified and decently funded first-time candidate. Yet the Cook Political Report and Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate the 23rd district as “likely Republican,” and the Rothenberg-Gonzales Political Report doesn’t even rank the race as among the nation’s most competitive.
“John Plumb has run a strong campaign, but it may not be enough,” said David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report. “And Reed has been a more aggressive candidate than he’s been in the past.”
Trump’s popularity upstate is helping candidates like Katko in Central New York, but he and other GOP incumbents have one other thing going for them, Wasserman said.
“They’ve done a good job of building their own political personas, apart from the top of the ticket.”
That’s bad news for Democrats nationwide.
To have any chance of winning control of the House “I’d say Democrats really need to run the table in New York,” Wasserman said.
And with little more than a week before the election, both Wasserman and Gonzales said that’s very unlikely to happen.