Two years ago, Republican newcomer Ann Marie Buerkle beat out Democratic incumbent Dan Maffei for the 25th Congressional district seat by a margin of 648 votes.
In 2012, the two will once again go head to head, but a number of factors have changed, including the shape and number of the district in which they’re running, the political makeup of that district and, to an extent, the political climate. The candidates are running in a presidential year, which will likely have an impact on voter turnout, at the very least.
One thing’s for sure: despite the fact that she’s the incumbent, Buerkle hardly has this race in the bag.
“This race is going to be a tough one to handicap beforehand,” said Dr. Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University. “It’s going to be a tough one to predict. My hunch is that it’s going to be a pretty competitive race.”
Brianne Murphy has withdrawn from the race to fill the former 25th Congressional District seat.
Murphy, an Irish lawyer who lives in Tipperary Hill, announced her run for the seat in November. She would have been squaring off against Dan Maffei, who held the same seat for two years, before losing in a bitter battle with Republican Ann Marie Buerkle. That battle lasted nearly a month after Election Day in 2010.
Maffei received support and the endorsement from the Onondaga County Democrats last week. Murphy said she received 23 percent of the party’s vote.
Buerkle’s current sprawling district over four counties will morph into a Democrat-heavy seat for the November election. That district will be the 24th and will include Onondaga, Cayuga and Wayne County, and part of Oswego County.
“I think with redistricting, and the Democrats designating Dan, I think it’s important we unite our resources behind one candidate,” Murphy said.
Murphy will continue to play a role in local politics, as president of the Onondaga County Young Democrats, but is supporting Maffei for the upcoming race.
“Dan and I have a lot of commonalities, in terms of our political leaning, so I don’t take major issue with his political stances,” she said. “I think it’s most important we have a representative in Congress that we don’t have today.”
One man, Robert Paul Spencer, has declared his intent to challenge Buerkle for the Republican nod in the district. Buerkle received the GOP endorsement.
The new 24th district
Obviously, the biggest change is that the 25th district will soon be the 24th district. Under new maps recommended and later approved by Judge Roanne Martin, the new district includes Onondaga, Cayuga and Wayne counties as well as half of Oswego County.
Originally, the district was to have included Onondaga, Cayuga, Madison and Tompkins counties. The New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR), the committee tasked with redistricting congressional lines, submitted the district map at the beginning of March. Had the map been approved, it would have added the highly Democratic Tompkins County to the district, which would have jeopardized Buerkle’s campaign. The move prompted speculation that some were looking to sacrifice the conservative Buerkle.
“There was nothing political about it,” said Scott Reif, press spokesman for the LATFOR committee. “We wanted to keep the counties whole, and this did so while maintaining the population numbers we were looking at.”
As it stands, the new district is politically similar to the old one.
“I don’t think much will change,” Buerkle said. “Certainly the geography has changed, but the interests are similar. It could have been seismic if the other lines had been accepted. But the judge stepped in, and the district map she put in place is a lot more fair.”
“The district is actually one of the least changed in the state, and the areas we added make sense,” he said.
Still, Reeher said, that could present a challenge for Buerkle.
“Even with the districts being redrawn, this is basically a moderate district,” he said. “We’re pretty middle-of-the-road here. Your typical Upstate Republican is kind of your last vestige of the moderate Republican. So she’s in for a tough battle.”
But Buerkle doesn’t think her conservative stance on national issues will be a problem. She said she’s remained true to what she campaigned on in 2010.
“I focus on constituent services,” she said. “I campaigned against the health care law. I campaigned in favor of small businesses and the private sector, and I’ve stayed true to that. My record is consistent. I’m doing what I said I would do. We’re true to our word.”
Reeher said Buerkle has confronted the issue of her conservatism before.
“She has run as a conservative and won,” he said. “It’s not like she ran as a moderate and moved to the right. So she’s already confronted that. But she’s not guaranteed reelection.”
What does Buerkle have going for her?
“If you look at what the voters were saying [in 2010], the scuttlebutt is that she was effective as a campaigner in terms of relating to the people,” Reeher said.
Buerkle said her efficacy as a campaigner was one of the keys to her victory in 2010.
“We outworked my opponent,” she said. “They outspent us four to one, but we outworked them. We had a grassroots campaign with a lot of grassroots supporters. We did very well, and we’ll continue that kind of grassroots campaigning.”
She said her camp would continue to use those skills to their advantage.
“In the last year and a half that I’ve been in office, we’ve established wonderful relationships,” she said. “We’ve been able to provide excellent constituent service through that same kind of grassroots organizing and those kinds of relationships we’ve created. That’s only going to help us this time around.”
Maffei, meanwhile, said his campaign would have to work harder to ensure that people understood that Buerkle didn’t have the best interests of the people of Central New York in mind.
“It’s clear that we must communicate exactly what Ann Marie Buerkle has voted for and where we differ,” he said. “She has voted to end Medicare and replace it with a private voucher program with no of guarantee coverage, and she voted to raise taxes on workers, while protecting tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. I think we need to lower the tax burden on the middle class, and that we need to keep Medicare strong for future generations.”
National politics at the local level
Maffei, for his part, may have been hurt in the 2010 election by a national trend against Democrats. President Barack Obama and his party lost ground nationwide as people reacted against his failure to act immediately to fix the country’s economic problems, while others were displeased with the administration’s health care policies and its failure to deliver on campaign promises regarding the War on Terror.
“On paper last time, the campaign that Dan Maffei ran should have won,” Reeher said. “No one disputes that. The money he had and the campaign he ran… It’s surprising that this national tide in favor of Republicans reached up to this level and swept him down as well.”
Buerkle, once called “the most conservative woman in Congress,” has been a vocal opponent of Planned Parenthood and health care reform. That has put her out of step with some of the district’s more moderate voters on major national issues and led many in her own party to speculate that Buerkle may be vulnerable to losing reelection.
Reeher said those speculations have merit, but Buerkle could still hold onto her seat.
“The thing about the way congressional elections work, it’s complicated,” he said. “In congressional races, even in presidential years, the local stuff can matter quite a bit. It’s been an articulated aim of her office to prioritize constituent services and to report to her constituents at a retail level. It may be the case that she’ll win some votes for reelection on a person-by-person basis, and that may mitigate the tide running against her in terms of ideology on national policy issues.”
Regardless of what the national and state leaders of her party think, Buerkle insists she is the best representative for the new 24th district.
“We can’t go back,” she said. “We have to go forward. We have to get the economy back on track.”
Maffei, obviously, disagrees.
“Central New York needs a representative who is focused on the middle class and job creation,” he said. “Ann Marie Buerkle has spent much of her time pursuing her far right social ideology, and when she has voted on economic issues she has voted to end Medicare and to raise taxes on working families in New York. I would have voted against that tax increase, and I support keeping Medicare strong for future generations. I also will focus my efforts on bringing jobs to Central New York, rather than spending time on social issues that Central New Yorkers can decide without the government butting in.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.