DeWITT, New York -- "I work 75 hours a week at this place," said the owner-operator of a convenience store on State Route 41 in Cortland County. "All I ever get are bills coming in, where they're raising the taxes on this and raising the taxes on that."
The silver-haired small business owner's diatribe had begun when I put a copy of the Syracuse Post-Standard on the counter and he asked, "Reading about all our political prostitutes?"
Obviously I was from out of town and he had apparently spotted me as a reporter, so I asked him what his feelings were about the upcoming election. "I'm not voting for any incumbents -- all the challengers, that's who I'm voting for," he said.
This was in the 24th District, where Democrat Rep. Michael Accuri is the incumbent, meaning the store owner's vote will go to Republican challenger Richard Hanna. The most recent poll of the district, taken in early September, showed Acuri leading Hanna 48 to 40 percent, but such results are of dubious predictive value -- especially considering that the poll was taken by Sienna Research Institute. In August, a month before the GOP gubernatorial primary, a Sienna poll showed former congressman Rick Lazio leading by 13 points. Lazio lost the Sept. 14 primary by 24 points to Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino.
Paladino is an outspoken populist whose orange-and-black yard signs and bumper stickers bear the slogan, "I'm Mad Too, Carl!"
That slogan may be an unintentional double entendre. Even some conservative Republicans here privately call Paladino a "nut job" -- which isn't to say they won't vote for him Nov. 2. Such is the discontent with Albany (the name of the state capital is, to most New Yorkers, an epithet signifying incompetence and corruption) that many will be happy to vote for a "nut job" whose campaign literature promises that he will "turn Albany upside-down and take out the trash." Polls show Paladino trailing Democrat Andrew Cuomo by double-digit margins, but the polls may be as wrong now as they were in August.
The mad-as-hell vote is an unpredictable thing, and one Democratic consultant told the New York Times that tonight's seven-way gubernatorial debate "could end up with Andy Warhol meets Salvador Dali." Surreal craziness, never a rare quality in New York politics, has been in bumper-crop abundance this year.
In the 29th District, Democrat Eric Massa resigned six months ago amid an ethics investigation involving charges of sexual misconduct. Massa claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by the White House. Victim or not, Massa's resignation now seems certain to result in the election of a Republican replacement, Tom Reed.
Meanwhile, in the 22nd District, embattled Democrat Rep. Maurice Hinchey reportedly assaulted a reporter for a local newspaper last week. Hinchey was caught on camera loudly telling Bill Kemble of the Kingston Daily Freeman to "shut up," and he later confronted the reporter and poked him in the chest. The reporter had questioned the nine-term incumbent about possible conflicts of interest involving a project for which Hinchey had earmarked federal funds.
Hinchey is under pressure from Republican challenger George Phillips, whose campaign slogan is a simple question: "Had Enough?" Although Hinchey beat Phillips handily two years ago when an Obama tidal wave swept over New York, this year the tide is running in the GOP's favor. Unemployment in the district is as high as 9 percent in some counties and, referring to Hinchey's voting record, Phillips's campaign manager Matt Hudson says, "The people in this district don't support Nancy Pelosi 97.5 percent of the time." Hinchey recently brought in former President Clinton to campaign for him -- a telltale move by a troubled incumbent, says Hudson. "We know that a week prior, [the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] was doing polling in the district… then President Clinton miraculously shows up."
Clinton also campaigned for Rep. Dan Maffei, the freshman Democrat in the 25th District. The Syracuse-area district was long represented by Republican Jim Walsh, who retired in 2008, allowing Maffei to win election with 55 percent of the vote. This year, Maffei is being challenged by Republican Ann Marie Buerkle.
A registered nurse who is also a lawyer, Buerkle has hit Maffei hard for his vote in favor of ObamaCare. "This bill needs to be de-funded, it needs to be repealed…. This doesn't do anything to improve health care in our country," she told a Sunday evening meeting of local Republicans in the Wayne County village of Clyde.
Buerkle and her supporters were angered by a Sienna poll reported Sunday by the Post-Standard showing Maffei with 51 percent to 39 percent for Buerkle. That contradicted a poll earlier this month by John McLaughlin that showed Buerkle slightly ahead. The Sienna poll was greeted with skepticism by Mike Jankoski, chairman of the Wayne County GOP, who pointed out that John McCain carried that county by 10 points two years ago, when most of the rest of the state went heavily for Obama.
"Wayne County is going to be rock solid behind Ann Marie," Jankoski said to applause at the meeting in Clyde, as he related how volunteers have turned out to support Buerkle. "We're never seen this level of enthusiasm."
Whether motivated by enthusiasm for Republicans or anger at Democratic incumbents, voters in western New York are likely to surprise some pollsters two weeks from now. While liberals like Frank Rich fret over voter "rage" in this Tea Party year, the actual reaction to a hard-fought GOP victory Nov. 2 will probably be more like the one Buerkle described to her supporters Sunday: "I promise you, we will have one great party."
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