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The race for New York’s 27th Congressional District is supposed to be about Democratic Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul and Republican challenger Chris Collins.
But two debates between the candidates this week have been dominated by someone else: President Obama.
Collins headed into debates Tuesday and Wednesday with a strategy to link the freshman congresswoman to the president, while Hochul sought to define herself as an independent voice who has broken with Democrats on several issues.
The reason is reflected in the most recent poll of the district, which found more than half of the voters view Obama unfavorably. Outside Erie County, the president’s popularity is even worse, with 57 percent of those polled saying they did not view the president favorably compared with 39 percent who did.
“I don’t work for President Obama,” Hochul said Wednesday during a 30-minute debate at WIVB-TV studios that will air again Sunday morning. “I work for the people of this district, and that’s why they sent me to Washington to be their independent voice. I have broken with the Democratic Party on many issues. I don’t agree with the Republican Party on other issues.”
Hochul’s voting record tallied by Congressional Quarterly shows she voted last year with the Democrats 81 percent of the time, while voting for Obama’s agenda 78 percent of the time. That’s less than other Democratic representatives from Western New York.
But national Republicans who have paid to air commercials in the district have sought to link Hochul to Obama.
Collins was on the same page during the debates this week. “Mrs. Hochul is pretending to be someone she’s not,” he said Wednesday. “She’s pretending to be independent. She is in lockstep with Barack Obama. She supports Nancy Pelosi.”
Hochul on Wednesday sought to draw a clear line between herself and Obama, pointing out that she supports the Keystone XL Pipeline, which the president has opposed, and that she voted with Republicans on a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.
She also said she does not support a portion of Obama’s health care law that calls for $716 billion in reduced Medicare payments during the next 10 years, with most of the savings coming from lower payments to Medicare providers.
“If there was an opportunity to vote up or down on those cuts today, I would do it,” Hochul said.
The health care bill was approved before Hochul took office. She supports the law and has voted against attempts to repeal it but believes some portions of it can be fixed. Collins supports repealing the law – a point he made repeatedly during the two debates.
At one point during Wednesday’s debate, after hearing Hochul disavow the planned reduction in future Medicare payments, Collins countered by welcoming her to join the Republican Party.
“From what I’m hearing from Mrs. Hochul, I’d suggest she register as a Republican,” he said, “because she sure talks an awful lot about how she disagrees with Barack Obama on this, that and the next thing.”
Hochul pushed back on questions that sought to define her support of Obama, telling Collins that he was attempting to polarize people and questioning why it mattered to voters in the district that she plans to vote for Obama in November’s election.
“I will work with whomever is in the White House,” Hochul said. “If Mitt Romney is in the White House in January, I guarantee you’re going to take pictures of me going to visit Mitt Romney, ’cause that’s the kind of individual I am. I don’t polarize. I don’t denigrate someone because of a party label.”
The debate, which aired on Channel 23 Wednesday night, touched on a range of issues – from the Second Amendment to whether religiously affiliated employers should be required to provide coverage of birth control for workers. The debate will air again at 11:30 a.m. Sunday on Channel 4.
Both candidates said they strongly supported gun rights. Both have been given an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, with Hochul picking up the organization’s endorsement.
Collins said he does not support a mandate that religiously affiliated employers provide birth control and said the solution is to repeal the Obama health care law. Hochul said she reached out to the secretary of Health and Human Services to seek a religious accommodation after the mandate took effect. The accommodation allows those organizations to rely on a third-party insurer to offer the coverage.
Hochul also sought to paint Collins as a candidate who would be unwilling to compromise with Democrats if elected.
“I’ve always been a compromising individual when it comes to getting things done,” Collins said. “The private sector, that’s what I spent 30 years doing.”
Hochul countered, “Saying it’s so, doesn’t make it so, Chris.”

email: djgee@buffnews.com