The local race for Congress pits a relative newcomer to the Hudson Valley with deep pockets and a progressive agenda who’s battling the “carpetbagger” label against an incumbent who’s positioned himself as a bipartisan bridge-builder, but who critics call just another vote in an increasingly radicalized Republican House caucus.
In an era where gerrymandering has made competitive congressional elections a relative rarity, the race for the 19th Congressional District between incumbent Republican Chris Gibson and Democratic challenger Sean Eldridge is garnering national attention and putting the spotlight on issues like Obamacare, energy, taxes and women’s health.
“NY-19” covers all of Ulster, Delaware, Greene, Columbia, Otsego, Schoharie and Sullivan counties and parts of Broome, Dutchess, Rensselaer and Montgomery counties. Much of the area was in the old 22nd Congressional District, where Maurice Hinchey earned a reputation as a member of the progressive wing of the Democratic caucus before retiring in 2012. The redrawing of district lines that year led to Gibson, who was elected to the 20th Congressional District in 2010, into a matchup against Ulster-based Democratic candidate Julian Schreibman.
Gibson, a 50-year-old retired Army officer, beat Schreibman 53 to 47 percent (despite losing Ulster), while a Democratic tide gave Barack Obama a 52 to 46 percent margin of victory in the district over Republican Mitt Romney.
Gibson’s 2012 victory in part stemmed from a successful outreach effort to Democratic and non-enrolled voters in the new district, where Republicans hold a slim 147,000-to-144,000 edge in party affiliation. Unaffiliated voters account for 126,000 of NY-19’s electorate. Several prominent Ulster County Democrats, including current Ulster County Legislature chairman John Parete, supported Gibson in 2012 based on his promise to be an independent voice who could make alliances with Democrats and help break Congressional deadlock.
Working against the Democrats this year is the fact that it’s a midterm election; past trends suggest an older, whiter and more conservative electorate, especially compared to the pro-Obama vote in 2012. It’s also the sixth year of the president’s administration, when traditionally the presidential party loses seats.
Gibson, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former professor of American government at West Point, has cast a handful of votes that place him, according to most independent political analyses, less conservative than most members of the Republican Congressional caucus and in the center-right of Congress as a whole.
After supporting the first “Ryan budget,” which called for severe cuts in entitlement programs, Gibson voted against the next three. He was one of a handful of Republicans who broke ranks with his caucus rather than risk a government shutdown in a failed effort to defund Obamacare. He voted for reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and against a law that would allow intelligence agencies to share cyber-security information with the private sector.
On foreign policy, Gibson whose 24-year Army career included three tours leading combat units in Iraq, has emerged as an advocate for a smaller U.S. military footprint overseas and more limits on presidential authority to deploy combat forces without Congressional approval. He’s a Congressional co-chair of “No Labels,” a group which promotes bipartisan compromise.
Working against gridlock
Gibson says he’s accustomed to criticism from both the left and the right for his compromise votes on controversial issues. “If you think gridlock is a problem, then you’ve got to have the temperament to work together with the guys across the aisle,” said Gibson. “If you say, I have to have 100 percent of what I want, then you have to accept the status quo. [Eldridge] doesn’t seem to get that.”
In response to complaints of a “do-nothing Congress,” Gibson points out votes on a water bill which included aid to victims of Superstorm Sandy, a farm bill that included first-time authorization for an industry-wide marketing campaign for New York’s organic farmers, and the first federally authorized budget in five years. Gibson said that he’s also backed legislation in Congress that added resources to combat opiate abuse and fund Lyme disease research in New York State.
“We’re actually getting things done that are important to upstate New York communities,” said Gibson.
Gibson’s opponents, meanwhile say that his reputation as an independent Republican voice says more about the lock-step nature of the GOP House caucus than his own political inclinations. They note that Gibson has remained solid with his caucus on issues like abortion — he voted for a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks — and opposition to raising the federal minimum wage. He signed a pledge, promoted by Americans for Prosperity — a Koch Industries-funded conservative activist group — promising not to vote for any climate change legislation that would raise government revenue. His unwillingness to risk a government shutdown aside, he’s backed a “repeal and replace” strategy regarding Obamacare.
“This ain’t Mississippi, where he has to play to the hard right of the Tea Party,” said former Ulster County and Kingston Democratic Party chairman Tom Hoffay of Gibson’s voting record. “But the fact is, his votes are adding up in favor of the Republican majority in Congress.”
Gibson’s centrist course doesn’t seem to have hurt him with more conservative voters. Conservative talk show host and Ulster County Conservative Party chairman Ed Gaddy said he had found Gibson “easy to work with” and “accessible” on constituent issues. As for his voting record, Gaddy said while he’s disagreed with some of Gibson’s positions he feels Gibson’s been solid on “core issues” that matter to conservative voters.