Democrats have long seen New York’s 19th congressional district as one that they should be winning, but don’t. Its voters broke for Obama twice, and its southern tip isn’t far from New York City. Now, there are clear signs that Democrats need a new strategy to win there. They don’t seem to be heeding them.
In 2014, they had young stud Sean Eldridge on the ticket. He was attractive and only 28. He had charm. His husband made his fortune in Silicon Valley and left Facebook with about $500 million. He had the money to be competitive, and he came from a middle-class background that would be relatable to voters. But he wasn’t from the district — he didn’t grow up there, and he didn’t live there until he decided he wanted the district’s congressional seat. He lost by almost 30 percentage points.
Two years later, things were going to be different. Zephyr Teachout, fresh off a surprisingly competitive primary challenge of Andrew Cuomo, was running. A political firebrand and fierce anti-corruption advocate, she was going to turn out the base and claim the seat for the Democrats. And Clinton would easily carry the district and help propel Teachout to victory. But there were a few problems. She grew up in Vermont and went to Yale. She taught at Fordham and participated in Occupy Wall Street. And she didn’t move to the district until 2015. (Before that, she lived in Brooklyn.) Neck-and-neck polls turned into a small deficit, and she lost by 8 points. Trump won the district, too.
But it was okay. Democrats would get another chance in 2018. And a blue wave carried by backlash against Trump would finally propel their candidate to victory. Well, maybe not.
2018 Comes Around
After years of waiting, Democrats’ best chance of winning the seat was finally here. They had seven strong candidates in the primary, six of whom were men (after Teachout’s loss, some pundits surmised that a man would perform better). There were three frontrunners, all of whom had attractive qualities.
There was Pat Ryan, who went to Ulster County’s Kingston High School and then West Point. He served two tours in Iraq. And he was a moderate Democrat; if you thought the nail in Teachout’s coffin was her progressive record, he had considerable appeal. Then again, he lived in Brooklyn and worked at a New York City technology company.
Next was Antonio Delgado. He grew up near (but not in) the district in Schenectady. Graduated from Colgate. Rhodes Scholar. Harvard-educated lawyer. An impressive resumé for sure. But after Law School, he moved to LA, where he recorded rap music under the persona AD The Voice. Then he moved to suburban New Jersey and worked for a powerful New York City law firm. He relocated to Rhinebeck just in time to run for Congress there.
Finally, there was Gareth Rhodes. He grew up on a farm in the district and never left for long. He went to City College, thanks to Pell Grants. And he sought to talk to everyone in the district, conservative rural voters and liberal suburban voters alike. Over the course of the primary campaign, he visited all 163 towns in NY-19, traveling from place to place in his RV. He was a child of the district, perhaps even more so than Republican incumbent John Faso.
Had Rhodes emerged victorious out of the June 26 primary, this article wouldn’t exist. He would probably be running well ahead of Faso, and NY-19 would look a lot more like VA-10 or NJ-11. Needless to say, he didn’t.
With just 22.1 percent of the vote, Antonio Delgado advanced to the general election. Almost immediately, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) and National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) poured money into the race.
Seeking to otherize Delgado in a district that is about 90 percent white, the ads featured audio clips of Delgado’s music. While they all differ slightly, they all start by describing him as “New York City liberal Antonio Delgado.” Then they play an overly censored portion of a song in which “sex” and “porno” are bleeped out. Next comes a criticism of the American political system cut to seem anti-American and extreme. Then a dramatic voiceover: “his voice can’t be our voice.”
The ads are clearly racially charged, and they could certainly backfire. But while voters may not care that Delgado used to be a rapper, they will care that he’s a “New York City liberal.”
The Hudson Valley isn’t far upstate, but voters in the region view candidates from New York City with extreme skepticism as they see problems with unemployment and drug addiction in their communities while the city appears to be thriving.
In fairness to Delgado, it is clear that he is running a far stronger, more focused campaign than Eldridge or Teachout did. His events and messaging lack the pretentiousness of Eldridge’s, and he isn’t married to a multi-millionaire. And his focus on healthcare and economic issues is easier for voters to relate to than Teachout’s abstract emphasis on rooting out corruption.
Where Things Stand
Most experts rate the race a clean toss-up. FiveThirtyEight and Inside Elections both give a narrow edge to Delgado. There isn’t much recent polling, with the only two reputable recent polls each showing a different candidate in the lead. But no reliable pollster has polled there since early September, and a lot could have changed since then.
Here’s what it comes down to: Voters willing to give an outsider a chance have likely already broken for Delgado. He’s made it clear where he stands on the issues, and he’s effectively hit Faso on breaking a promise on health care. In such a polarized election climate and in a district where PACs have been cramming the airwaves with ads, undecided voters in NY-19 aren’t likely to be particularly political people. Not many of them will be voting for Delgado because of his smart ideas on healthcare and jobs. But I bet many will be voting for Faso because he’s from the Hudson Valley and not big, bad New York City.
While ads have tried to portray Delgado as anti-American and disrespectful of people who died in 9/11, perhaps the worst thing they call him is a “New York City liberal.” The ads may exaggerate his background, but they still speak to legitimate concerns that are common in the district. He has reason to be worried.
With the right candidate, Democrats could have pulled away in this district. Now, they’re going to have to fight for every last vote in the hopes of eeking out a narrow victory. And even if Delgado pulls it off, he’ll have to fight for his political life just two short years later.
This all could have been avoided. Now, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Adam Rapfogel is a Senior studying Political Science at Tufts University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.