New York's 24th congressional district extends from the Finger Lakes to the Adirondacks, but the contest to represent the area in Congress briefly focused on New York City in August. The proposal to build an Islamic center near the site of the 9/11 attacks was generating heat in Washington, and candidates across the country found it hard to avoid the issue. Republicans were almost all condemning the plan, with Democrats split on the issue, but in the 24th, the roles were reversed.
Republican Richard Hanna, challenging incumbent Democrat Michael Arcuri, bucked his party, saying in a statement to local media, "It's extremely easy to understand why people are upset by this, but this country was founded by people who were running away from religious persecution. So how can we become what we have beheld and found contemptible in other places?"
Arcuri quickly responded by aligning himself with mosque opponents, saying in a statement, "The pain felt by many Americans from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is still very real, and I can understand how the thought of building a mosque near Ground Zero could reopen those wounds. For the sake of the victims and their families, I think another location should be chosen."
Hanna then walked back his seeming support for the project, saying that while its proponents have a constitutional right to proceed, to do so would be "insensitive."
The mosque episode was just one indication of how the upstate New York race doesn't fit neatly into the national narrative of this year's congressional contests. While some other Republican candidates are basking in the support of the Tea Party, Hanna, a businessman who almost beat Arcuri in 2008, isn't afraid to say he's a moderate. He touts himself as a political outsider in a year when incumbency is largely a liability, but also as a Republican at odds with the national party on some key issues. Hanna told TIME he voted for Jimmy Carter for President, is pro-choice and supports civil unions (although not marriage) for gay couples.
When a local television news station suggested that House minority leader John Boehner who could become the country's most powerful Republican if his party regains the majority this fall is more conservative than Hanna, the candidate replied, "Most of them are. I am not in the mainstream with most Republicans."
The Arcuri campaign says Hanna is much less of a moderate than he would like voters to believe. "It depends on who he's talking to," says Arcuri press secretary Jeb Fain. "I'd say that a lot of people support Wall Street reform, but Hanna opposed it. I wouldn't say that makes you a moderate in upstate New York."
Arcuri himself is quick to claim the mantle of true moderate. He is a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition in the House and voted against cap-and-trade legislation as well as the final health care bill. (He voted for the earlier House version of health reform but says provisions in the final bill related to taxing high-priced insurance plans was a reason he withheld his support in the end.)
Both campaigns have begun running negative ads in recent weeks, with Arcuri launching fairly disingenuous television attack ads against Hanna's record as a businessman and Hanna firing back with dubious charges that Arcuri took money from someone indicted for illegal campaign contributions. Hanna is getting a boost from ad spending by outside groups, including one called Americans for Job Security, a shadowy right-leaning group that reportedly spent $6 million during this year's primary season.
Arcuri won his seat, left open when longtime Republican Congressman Sherwood Boehlert retired, with 54% of the vote; he beat Hanna in 2008 52% to 48%. In the presidential race, Barack Obama narrowly won the 11-county district encompassing vast rural tracts as well as small cities like Utica and Cortland, beating John McCain by just 2% of the vote. Not surprisingly, then, the National Republican Congressional Committee has the 24th District in its crosshairs, hosting a website called arcurifacts.com that highlights some of the incumbent's congressional votes related to taxes and spending.
One way the race for the 24th is mirroring other contests around the country is in the focus on the economy. Voters in upstate New York, still stinging from the exodus of manufacturers over the past 30 years, are primarily concerned about jobs. A recent Siena Research Institute poll of likely voters showed than 46% cited jobs as the most important issue their Congressman should focus on. As a successful businessman, Hanna who founded a large construction company, operated it for more than 20 years and says he employed more than 450 people might be expected to have an advantage on economic issues. Yet by a slim margin, more voters (41%) felt Arcuri, a former county district attorney, would better handle them than Hanna (38%). The same poll showed Arcuri with an eight-point lead overall, garnering support from 48% of likely voters to Hanna's 40%.
Facing that kind of challenge, the last thing Hanna needs is his own party bringing him down. Case in point: another self-made businessman, Carl Paladino, the party's controversial nominee for governor. A hot-tempered candidate who recently nearly came to blows with a newspaper reporter, Paladino is far more politically polarizing than Hanna, who says he doesn't intend to endorse Paladino or seek his endorsement. "He's not as well-guarded as some of the politicians that are out there," Hanna says of Paladino. "He's prone to speaking his mind, and I kind of get that," he says, adding, "I've heard some things that concern me."
As the incumbent, Arcuri has more name recognition, although Hanna's earlier attempt at the seat makes him far better known this time around. But in a moderate district with two moderates running, each with about the same amount of cash on hand (about half a million dollars) as of the most recent public filing in August, the election to represent NY-24 won't be a safe bet for either party.