If there’s one House race that encapsulates the hopes of the Bernie Sanders revolution, it is the race for the currently Republican-held open seat in upstate New York’s 19th congressional district.
Republican John Faso, the former minority leader of the State Assembly, is up against Democrat Zephyr Teachout, who won a third of the vote against Gov. Andrew Cuomo two years ago — just shy of the record for a challenge to an incumbent governor in a New York state primary.
Having cut her teeth in grassroots politics, she is fundraising in the Sanders mold — her average donation is $19— yet she has nearly five times as much cash on hand for the final stretch than Faso. But Faso is getting plenty of Super PAC help that may more than make up the difference.
What little polling that exists points to a close race — a Monday poll has Teachout up 45 to 42 percent — as does the partisan make up of the district. The 19th has a “partisan voting index” of +1 Democratic, meaning the 2012 presidential vote of the district was only 1 percentage point more Democratic than the nation as a whole.
How are the campaigns running? Teachout is trying to emphasize the issues.
In “Thirty Seconds,” Teachout uses a 30-second ad to disparage 30-second ads as what other politicians rely upon because they think voters “aren’t very smart,” and she points viewers to longer videos on her website explaining her policy positions to “bring jobs home, support local farming and make things in America again.”
But she is not averse to using 30-second ads to skewer Faso for being a tool of corporate interests. In the expertly-shot “Hudson River,” Teachout pilots a boat while connecting Faso’s time in the Assembly to Wall Streeters who “wrecked our economy” as well as corporate polluters of the river.
Faso is trying to defuse the attack on his background with testimonials. Not worrying about being seen as tied to the Republican Establishment, “Neighbor” features the incumbent Rep. Chris Gibson suggesting he hand-picked Faso to run: “I didn’t have to go far to find the right person to keep representing us.”
Another ad, “Champion” features the former president of Autism Speaks to neutralize the attack on his lobbyist work by citing his efforts for her organization: “Some people attack John as a lobbyist, but he’s our champion.”
Faso and his Republican allies are also cribbing from former Sen. Scott Brown’s failed campaign against now-Sen. Elizabeth Warren, trying to marginalize Teachout as a “Professor” (she teaches law at Fordham University). Faso has an attack website, ProfessorTeachout.com which declares she is “A NEW YORK CITY RADICAL LIBERAL WHO DOESN’T SHARE OUR VALUES.”
And a National Republican Congressional Committee ad, “Zany Professor,” portrays Teachout as reading “Socialism for Beginners,” scrawling her love of higher taxes on a blackboard, and using a mousepad with a photo of herself with Bernie Sanders captioned “BEST FRIENDS.”
Mother Jones questioned the wisdom of using Sanders as a negative when polls show he’s “the most popular politician in America.” And Teachout is far from ashamed at the association; she has her own video telling the story of “How I Met Bernie Sanders.”
A common thread in the attacks on Teachout involve accusing her of supporting higher property taxes, because she opposed a law signed by Gov. Cuomo which caps how much municipalities can raise property taxes each year. We can tell that blow is landing because Teachout is spending considerable effort trying to explain her position and redirect the attack.
The truth about Zephyr Teachout and property taxes
She has a three-minute video with a deep explanation defending her position. “Property taxes are out of control and we need to lower them” she insists. Her solution is “individualized property tax relief” for people who pay a large percentage of their income in property taxes, while blaming high property taxes on a loss of revenue from state tax loopholes won by corporate lobbyists. She notes who was in the Assembly at the time: “….when John Faso was in the Assembly, property taxes went up 43 percent.” Referring to the attack ads tagging her as the one in favor of higher property taxes, she tells the viewer, “just ask yourself, who’s paying for those?”
Another 30-second ad defends her opposition to the cap, as taking away “Local Control” over rates, while blaming “corruption” in Albany for the high rates. She even tries to outflank Faso on the right, saying “John voted 132 times for higher taxes.” (Her website elaborates that from “1987-2002” Faso “Cast 132 Votes To Either Increase Taxes Or Extend Tax Increases.”)
If Teachout holds on to that three-point lead and overcomes Faso’s Super PAC money, she will not only be an example of how small-donor campaigns can triumph over corporate cash in swing districts. She will also be a case study of how progressive populists can use a combination of policy detail and political jiu-jitsu to beat back right-wing attacks.