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Congressional races: Monroe in the spotlight? 

The next Congressional election is only nine months away, and this year, Western New York just might matter.

With Republicans in the House of Representatives in disarray, the president's poll numbers stalling, and the DeLay-Cunningham-Abramoff scandals making the news, some Democrats smell an opening. It's probably overly optimistic for the Dems to think they'll seize control of the House, but that hasn't stopped some left-leaning pundits from speculating about a revolution. And if that were to happen, odds that are Western New York --- where all but one district includes part of MonroeCounty --- would be a prime battleground.

Republicans outnumber Democrats in three of the four districts, but there are enough third-party and independent voters (those registered without a party affiliation) that those three districts could be competitive.

And, says a recent posting on the liberal blog Daily Kos: "What makes this region potentially fertile ground is how well the Democrats did" in recent elections.

The blog says it hopes the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee "sees the potential of making the Northeast in 2006 what the South was for the GOP in 1994 --- a beachhead in the battle to reclaim the House."

Judging from the number of candidates already expressing interest, quite a few Upstate Dems see that potential. But that leaves the party with too many options and opens the door to the Dems' perpetual vulnerability: bitter, bruising primaries.

One way to prevent that is for the Democratic committees in each district to coalesce quickly around a candidate. But are the famously fractious Dems open to such an undemocratic process?

"We actually are talking about coordinating and getting a consensus on some of these issues," says Monroe County Democratic Committee Chair Joe Morelle. But, he adds, there's been "nothing formal" in the way of arrangements so far.

Here's a glance at the local congressional races as they shape up right now.

The 25th

New York's 25th district includes all of OnondagaCounty (Greater Syracuse) and stretches east through Cayuga and WayneCounties into Webster and parts of Irondequoit and Penfield.

The incumbent: Nine-term Republican Jim Walsh.

The challengers: Walsh got away without a challenge from a major-party candidate two years ago. This year the race for his seat promises to be one of the most interesting with three Democrats competing to run against him in November.

One of them is Daniel Maffei, who hails from the Syracuse area. A former staffer for Senators Bill Bradley and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Maffei's early Federal Election Commission statements say he has nearly $100,000 in cash on hand a substantial amount for this early in the campaign. Judging from the statements on his website, Maffei's strategy will be to paint Walsh as part of the House Republican machinery that, given the recent scandals, should be viewed with suspicion by independent-minded voters.

On this end of the district, Webster resident PalomaCapanna, a divorce attorney and businesswoman is also vying for the party's nod. Her strategy, like Maffei's, seems to be to capitalize on voters' disappointment with Washington Republicans.

This early in the race, the candidates have said little to differentiate themselves from one another; the platform pages on both Maffei's and Capanna's websites read like the talking points of any moderate Democrat.

A third candidate, from roughly the geographical center of the district, is Ken Howland of Port Byron, CayugaCounty. His eclectic life experience and prominent mention of campaign reform position Howland as the populist candidate. His limited centrist platform is built around a heavy emphasis on defense and homeland security.

The spread: Total number of registered voters: 431,138. Republicans: 157,389. Democrats: 134,982. Third-party and unaffiliated voters: 138,767.

The 26th

Stretching from Buffalo's suburbs to Rochester's western suburbs and including Batavia, rural Wyoming and LivingstonCounties and part of Orleans, New York's 26thdistrict is the most geographically compact in Western New York.

The incumbent: Four-term Republican Tom Reynolds. One of New York's most powerful politicians, Reynolds chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, which means it's his job to get Republicans elected in all these seats.

The challenger: In 2004, manufacturer Jack Davis spent over a million dollars of his own money giving Reynolds a surprisingly serious challenge. (He took about 44 percent of the vote.) He's expected to be back on the ballot in 2006, perhaps with more support from local Dems this time around. Davis's approach to politics has been unusual, focusing almost exclusively on stopping the outsourcing of American jobs to foreign countries (particularly in manufacturing and other blue-collar industries). His Save American Jobs Association flirts with the hard protectionism of Pat Buchanan (indeed, the site links to a Buchanan article advocating the high tariffs of a century ago), a stance that's oddly paired, but not incompatible, with the Democratic Party's typical platform.

The spread: Registered voters: 452,192. Republicans: 185,838. Democrats: 141,589. Third-party and unaffiliated voters: 124,765.

The 28th

A textbook example of a gerrymandered district, New York's 28th connects the strongly Democratic cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls with Rochester, another Democrat stronghold, through a narrow string of rural, lakeside towns in Monroe, Orleans and NiagaraCounties.

The incumbent: Ten-term Democrat Louise Slaughter.

The challengers: This district heavily favors Democrats, and so far, no Republican challenger has emerged to run against Slaughter. Still, Steve Minarik, chair of the New YorkState and Monroe County Republican Committees, prides himself on finding candidates for every race. (Minarik didn't return calls from City Newspaper for this article.)

The rumored primary challenge from a fellow Dem, Buffalo City Councilmember Antoine Thompson, appears to be on hold. Thompson --- who'd made early rumblings about a challenge (See "No Slaughter in the House?" October 5) --- apparently agreed not to primary Slaughter if the Erie County Democratic Committee would choose him to run in a special election to fill the State Senate seat vacated by Buffalo's new mayor, Byron Brown. Instead, the Erie Dems picked another City Councilmember, Marc Coppola. Thompson will now have to decide which primary battle he'll fight.

Morelle predicts that Thompson will abandon his plan to take on Slaughter. "My understanding is that it's less and less likely," he says.

The spread: Registered voters: 412,124. Democrats: 219,037. Republicans: 99,726. Third-party and unaffiliated voters:93,361.

The 29th

Physically the largest of Western New York's districts, the 29th district is made up of several rural counties in the Southern Tier plus Yates, Ontario, and all or part of nine towns in southern MonroeCounty.

The incumbent: One-term Republican Randy Kuhl.

The challengers: With 24 years of active-duty experience in the US Navy, Corning Democrat Eric Massa has some of the toughest credentials of the military veterans turning to politics. A Naval officer, he served as special assistant to General Wesley Clark and went to work as a Capitol Hill staffer after a battle with cancer cut his military career short. Instead of allowing himself to be pigeonholed as a one-dimensional candidate, though, he has identified a broad range of issues, from Social Security and health care to agriculture and trade.

The Dems may also have another candidate. David Nachbar, a senior vice president for human resources at Bausch and Lomb is reportedly considering a bid. He has extensive experience in the corporate world and a degree from CornellUniversity's Industrial and Labor Relations school. Nachbar was out of town and unable to respond to City's request for an interview late last week.

The spread: Registered voters: 421,962. Republicans: 185,860. Democrats: 123,191. Third-party and unaffiliated voters: 112,911.

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