In the face of ugly numbers in a non-partisan Siena poll and unsettling cracks in his Democratic Party base, Julian Schreibman is going on the attack as he seeks to portray incumbent Congressman Chris Gibson as a Medicare-gutting, anti-abortion radical Republican. It’s a message the onetime federal prosecutor and Ulster County Democratic Committee chairman hopes will resonate in a newly drawn congressional district that includes large swaths of voters who, for the past two decades, have been represented by liberal lion Maurice Hinchey.
The strategy, which has played out in recent weeks in a series of Schreibman attack ads citing Gibson’s record on Medicare, may be paying off. A new poll by a left-leaning research firm, Grove Insight, shows Schreibman closing the gap among voters. Perhaps more importantly, Schreibman appears to be winning the money race. Last week the Albany Times Union reported that Schreibman raised $535,000 in campaign cash during the third quarter of the year, beating out Gibson by about $125,000. As the race enters a final phase that will include a series of candidate debates (Editor’s note: This story went to press before Wednesday night’s debate; we’ll have a full report on it in next week’s Kingston Times …) and a relentless schedule of public events and fundraisers across a sprawling 11-county district, both campaigns would like to make the contest a referendum on Gibson’s two-year record in Congress. But what that record is and what it means is at the heart of the struggle.
Gibson, a highly decorated retired U.S. Army officer from Kinderhook, is reaching out to voters as a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road Republican more interested in results than ideology. Over the course of a 45-minute interview recently at his Town of Ulster headquarters, Gibson offered warm words for half a dozen local Democrats, including Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo and County Executive Mike Hein, in between detail-rich discourses on agricultural policy and the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Irene. On Obamacare, Gibson forgoes talk of “socialized medicine” or “rationed healthcare” before launching into his six-point prescription to replace the Affordable Care Act with a mix of Republican initiatives like tort reform and laws to allow people to purchase insurance across state lines.
“The president had the right idea, to drive down costs and expand access,” said Gibson. “I just don’t think that it’s going to live up to expectations.”
Burnishing his centrist credentials, Gibson touts his vote earlier this year for a bipartisan budget plan in line with the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission and his rating by the Washington Post as the “third most independent” member of congress (Gibson voted with the Republican majority in Congress 74 percent of the time during the 2011 term). Gibson holds a 52 percent rating from the American Conservative Union based on his 2011 voting record, compared with 72 percent for fellow Hudson Valley Republican and Tea Party favorite Nan Hayworth. The outspokenly progressive Hinchey merited only a 4 percent rating from the conservative group.
Gibson tacking left?
In response, Schreibman and his supporters have built a campaign on exposing what they say is the truth about Gibson: he is, in the words of one observer, “a right-winger trying to tack left” to win within new district lines where Republicans and Democrats are nearly evenly split. (In Gibson’s soon-to-be-defunct district, Republicans hold a comfortable enrollment advantage). Schreibman has hammered his opponent on his vote to prohibit federal funding of Planned Parenthood (Gibson says he is pro-choice but does not support using taxpayer money to fund abortions) and other conservative cause. But it was Gibson’s 2011 vote for the so-called Ryan budget that has formed the tip of the spear in Schreibman’s assault on Gibson’s voting record. In particular, a section of the budget proposed by Wisconsin congressman and vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan which would, over time, replace the government-run Medicare program for senior citizens with a voucher program which would offer them money to buy insurance from the private sector.
A series of Schreibman-sponsored attack ads aired in recent weeks seeks to turn the 2011 vote into a millstone around Gibson’s neck with images of angry, frightened seniors questioning Gibson’s plans to “gut” Medicare and “turn it into a coupon program.” “Why do you want to hurt us,” asks an elderly woman looking into the camera in the latest Schreibman ad. Gibson, who has so far eschewed negative advertising, responded with his own spot featuring soft guitar music, gentle reassurances, and his mother.
But while Gibson has avoided attack ads, GOP strategist Karl Rove’s Crossroads Global Policy Strategies super-PAC has not. The independent political group recently paid $460,000 to air an ad linking Schreibman’s support for Obamacare to supposed tax hikes and “unelected Washington Bureaucrats” in charge of seniors’ health care. Gibson, who voted against the 2012 version of the Ryan budget in favor of a bipartisan plan, calls the attacks a gross distortion. The proposals he voted for, Gibson said, would have no impact on current seniors and would protect the interests of future seniors. But Schreibman invokes a quote from Harry Truman when he defends the negative campaigning.
“People say I’m giving them hell,” said Schreibman. “But I’m giving them the truth and it feels like hell.”
No Schreibman record to run on
If Gibson is working to defend his record, Schreibman is challenged by having to run without one. Other than a failed attempt to secure the Democratic Party nomination for Ulster County District Attorney in 2008, this is his first campaign for public elective office. While Gibson began the campaign with high name recognition, at least in parts of the district like Columbia County that he currently represents, Schreibman began his run as a virtual unknown outside of Ulster County Democratic circles. A mid-September poll by the Siena Research Institute showed Gibson holding a commanding 52 to 26 percent lead over Schreibman district-wide. In parts of the new district currently represented by Gibson, the lead was closer to 35 percent. According to the poll, two thirds of voters hadn’t even heard of Schreibman in September and those who had were evenly divided in their opinion. Among Democrats, the poll found, 21 percent said that they would vote for Gibson.
Slideshow illustration by Bruce Ackerman.