WASHINGTON – One of 2014’s top congressional races may be taking shape in the Southern Tier, where Democrat Martha Robertson of Dryden has already raised nearly $300,000 to challenge Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican who’s enduring some withering criticism from observers who say he’s not been properly engaged in running for re-election.
That race in New York’s sprawling 23rd District – which includes Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties – may be the only competitive congressional campaign in Western New York next year, as Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Chris Collins, R-Clarence, have yet to draw challengers.
In contrast, the Southern Tier race already is attracting national attention, with the widely respected Rothenberg Political Report naming it as one of the five top House races to watch in the Middle Atlantic states.
“Republican Rep. Tom Reed nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory last time,” wrote Nathan L. Gonzales, Rothenberg’s deputy editor, earlier this month. “Democrats have pinned their hopes this cycle on Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson, but Reed’s biggest opponent might be himself.”
Gonzales was referring to Reed’s surprisingly narrow four-point win last November over Tompkins County Legislator Nate Shinagawa, who was only 28 at the time of the race and whose campaign struggled for months to raise funds.
Political pros like Gonzales – and even some Republican strategists – said Reed didn’t run hard enough last time, and they wonder if he might be taking it too easy this time as well.
For example, the Rothenberg report noted last month that Reed’s campaign website had not been updated since his November re-election. And even now, the website features plenty of pictures of the hefty Reed from 2012, before he got gastric bypass surgery and lost 90 pounds.
On the plus side, Reed has already hired a campaign manager for 2014 and has raised $679,728 so far for his next race.
“This was one of the best quarters he has ever had” in terms of fundraising, said Reed’s campaign manager, Seth Wimer.
“I can’t speak for last year’s campaign, but the fact that I’ve been here on the ground, building the campaign, shows that he is taking the race seriously and that he’s going to run hard,” Wimer added.
Reed can also rely on his strong standing in Washington, where he’s a member of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and where he has forged strong relationships with his colleagues and with Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
On the political side, though, even some Republicans worry about Reed.
Terming his 2012 electoral performance “embarrassing,” one Republican strategist who asked not to be identified by name said: “The numbers speak to what a weak incumbent Tom Reed is.”
While Reed’s cash on hand as of June 30 – $539,966 – dwarfs Robertson’s $247,944, Robertson’s overall cash haul of $278,049 is unusually large for a first-timer to national politics.
What’s more, she got nearly all of her money from voters in the district – particularly the Ithaca area – while Reed took more money from political action committees than he did from individuals.
“I think it’s a good fundraising quarter for her,” Gonzales said.
Robertson, 62, is a former teacher and longtime community activist who leads the Tompkins County Legislature.
She said she’s running to bring some bipartisan business sense to Congress. She touts her role as chairwoman of the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency, which has brought 700 jobs in recent years to the county. Tompkins County has the lowest unemployment rate in New York State.
“I have a record of solving problems in a bipartisan way, not just talking about being bipartisan in the district but acting just the opposition while working in Washington,” Robertson said.
First elected with support from tea party groups in 2010, Reed has since moved more toward the center, recently joining the No Labels, a bipartisan movement aimed at problem-solving rather than opponent-bashing.
But Reed’s voting record remains reliably Republican, and he’s taken strongly conservative positions on key legislation that’s now pending, such as the Farm Bill and immigration reform.
Moving toward the middle may be wise for Reed, though, since that’s what the district has done.
New York’s Southern Tier district has long been regarded as a Republican stronghold – but that was before last year’s reapportionment brought strongly liberal Tompkins County and politically competitive Chautauqua County into the mix.
With those additions, President Obama, a Democrat, lost the district by just 1.2 percentage points – which political pros regard as a sign that the district is now competitive.
That’s by no means the case for the Buffalo area’s other two congressional districts.
Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney by nearly 30 points in the Buffalo-centered 26th district, which Higgins represents. And Romney beat Obama by more than 12 points in the suburban and rural 27th district, which Collins represents.
That being the case, it’s no surprise that neither Higgins nor Collins has yet drawn a 2014 challenge – a fact that hasn’t stopped the incumbent lawmakers from raising money for their next election.
Higgins raised $188,608 in the first six months of the year, reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show. More than two-thirds of that money came from individual donors, with the rest coming from political action committees.
Collins, meanwhile, raised $277,675 – and nearly 55 percent of it came from PACs, with committees representing the finance industry, conservative groups and agricultural interests leading the way.
Asked why he took more money from special interests than individual donors, Collins said it’s largely because he had not yet seriously tapped his individual donor base for 2014, figuring they were “tapped out” in the wake of the race in which he defeated then-Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, a Democrat.
As for his PAC contributions, Collins said they won’t affect how he votes on the House floor. Political committees are donating to him “based on my core vision and values,” Collins said.
Collins’ campaign finance filing also shows that he has yet to repay the $500,000 personal loan he made to his campaign last year. He said he has no plans to pay back that loan with money he’s raising for the 2014 campaign.