Owens’ Retirement Opens Up North Country Congressional Race

Written by Matthew Hamilton on . Posted in Campaigns/Elections, Daily.

Rep. Bill Owens’ announcement that he will not seek re-election in November comes with a hefty dose of speculation as Democrats scramble to try to hold onto the seat.

During a Tuesday afternoon teleconference, Owens said that he began grappling six weeks ago with the decision to walk away at the end of this year but recently came to his decision. He cited a desire to spend more time with his family.

Rep. Bill Owens

Rep. Bill Owens

The news sent ripples of speculation through political circles. While Owens wouldn’t hint at a potential Democratic successor, several names were floated throughout the day.

One potential Democratic candidate is Saratoga lawyer John Sullivan. Sullivan said Tuesday that he would not immediately rule out a run, though he has not committed to one yet. Regardless of whether he is in the mix, Sullivan said that there is a pool of well-qualified Democratic candidates who could run for the seat.

Other speculative candidates include Brian McGrath of Lewis County and Stuart Brody, a former Essex County Democratic leader.

Sullivan, McGrath and Brody all flirted with runs for the 23rd congressional district seat in 2009. But after redistricting, part of the former 23rd district was absorbed into what is now the 21st district that is occupied by Owens, a fellow Democrat.

Petitioning for the 21st congressional district seat begins in March, leaving less than two months for candidates to build an initial stockpile of cash for a run.

“Announcing now as opposed to waiting until the eve of the petitioning period at least gives people an opportunity to examine the possibility and get themselves together,” Sullivan said. “There’s plenty of time to do fundraising and all of that before the political season kicks in. I would applaud [Owens] for what I would view as an early announcement. By announcing now, he certainly is being helpful to any potential Democratic nominee.”

When asked about why he made the decision now, Owens said that he was struggling with the decision not to run and the thought in the back of his mind grew over time. He said that he had been ready to act for a few days, but when word of his choice leaked to the press, he decided to make it official.

The district is the largest east of the Mississippi River and spans 12 counties from the Canadian border to the Capital Region and from the state’s eastern border to the Mohawk Valley.

Republican candidate Elise Stefanik, who has already declared, said that while she has enjoyed traveling to meet constituents thus far, it’s a physically grueling district to travel across.

Republican candidates have a head start for what has been a hotly contested race in recent years. At least four Republicans have been mentioned as possible picks, including Michael Ring of Jefferson County, Stefanik of Essex County and Joseph Gilbert of St. Lawrence County, all of whom have already declared their candidacies. Washington County’s Josh James’ name has been floated as a potential candidate, though as of late December he would only say he was considering a run.

Owens won the seat in a 2009 special election and brushed back Republican challenger Matt Doheny twice since then, though the 2010 and 2012 races were close.

In a historically Republican North Country, Owens’ victory was a significant Democratic win. But public opinion about national issues, such as Obamacare, could send the swing votes that helped Owens back to the Republican side.

“In recent national polls I saw it was independent voters that were most unhappy with Obama and Obamacare. If that’s true, that bodes well for a Republican candidate,” said a source familiar with past races in the district.

In a statement, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel cited Owens’ three straight victories, as well as victories in the district by President Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, to demonstrate the support Democrats have.

“While Republicans are already fighting a bitter and divisive primary, I have no doubt that another common sense Democrat will fill his shoes in this competitive district that Democrats have held for the past three elections,” Israel said.

Owens also expressed little apprehension the Democrats will hold the seat. He said that the district is moderate, filled with “Rockefeller Republicans and Reagan Democrats.” He, too, cited Obama’s victory in the district as evidence that a Democrat can succeed him.

Owens also pointed to his own string of wins in Northern New York.

“I was a surprise in 2009. There’s another pleasant surprise out there,” Owens said. “The Democrats have held this seat for three elections now. The President won the district by five percentage points. So there’s no reason to believe we (Democrats) will not be successful again.”

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