Kathy Hochul was never known as a farm girl growing up in suburban Buffalo, but the Democratic congresswoman has become a familiar sight around Western New York barns over the past year.
Hochul spoke to the Politics Column in jeans and sneakers Thursday morning before heading off to Clarence and the Kreher egg farm – yet another agricultural inspection tour in a new 27th Congressional District, where farming is a big deal.
Over a cup of coffee she expressed enthusiasm for every detail of the job she has coveted since college – a member of the House of Representatives. Chicken barns, factories, health care policy and retail politics are all part of her job description. And there is no question she revels in it.
But as one of Western New York's most successful Democrats over the years, Hochul now faces the toughest challenge of her career. Republican Chris Collins, the former county executive, is looming as the favorite in a GOP-friendly district that fits him like a custom- tailored suit.
Now, as Republicans delight in photos of her conversing with President Obama at the White House in a district they already claim for Mitt Romney, Hochul offers no apologies. If she has a chance to talk with the president, she says, it centers on the upstate economy and saving the Niagara Falls Air Base.
"Bring it on," she says of the anti-Obama theme that is sure to dominate the upcoming campaign.
On occasion, incumbency has its advantages. It's almost a sure bet that sometime before Nov. 6, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will visit the Falls base. And it's equally certain he won't arrive with bad news. On that day, incumbent Hochul will be standing with him.
It all adds up to one of the most intense congressional campaigns in the nation, already taking shape. Collins and Washington Republicans will hammer Hochul on her support of the president; she will counter that she is with him on some things and against him on others.
While she portrays herself as independent voting against Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi 20 percent of the time, Collins says his pro-Pelosi voting record will top out at 0 percent.
All of this helps form her own campaign themes.
"Unlike my opponent, I won't say I will never vote with the speaker," she said. "If Speaker Boehner has a good plan, I'm with him."
Hochul knows this won't be easy. With presidential voting as a measure, the new 27th District ranks as the most Republican in New York State. As a result, she may be morphing into the Democratic equivalent of former Congressman Jack Quinn.
He survived in the most Democratic district in the nation represented by a Republican by often voting with the Dems and cozying up to labor. Hochul may not yet rank in Quinn class when it comes to straddling the line – but it's what voters will hear as her sneakers hit the campaign trail.
"That's the only way to operate," she said, adding she thinks her strategy fits even an ultra-Republican district like the 27th.
"They're not Texas Republicans," she said. "They're open-minded, and look at individuals and ideas."
All of this will be discussed in chicken barns and on television over the next several months – especially television, where Hochul will prove competitive. She will report an additional $500,000 in campaign funds since April 1, while Washington Democrats and other groups will weigh in, too.
The days ahead now offer a classic choice. Collins will unabashedly run as a Republican, constantly linking Hochul to Obama and Pelosi. She will proudly walk a fine line.
And nobody will complain that this campaign didn't offer a choice.