- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

When President Obama picked Rep. John M. McHugh last week to be Army secretary, he opened up a Republican seat in New York’s 23rd District, which Mr. Obama carried in November and Democrats are targeting to add to their growing House majority.

Mr. Obama’s nomination of the top-ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee was to some extent an effort to further deliver on his campaign promise to run a bipartisan administration. However, Republican campaign strategists say they suspect political maneuvering engineered by the White House’s politically aggressive chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when the Democrats took back control of the House in 2006.

“Make no mistake about it, John McHugh is an incredibly qualified nominee for secretary of the Army, and he deserves a swift confirmation,” the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) said in a memo to “interested parties” last week.

But, the memo added, “there is no doubt that” Mr. Emanuel “was well aware of the political ramifications surrounding the selection when this plan was hatched. The party boss in the West Wing saw a political opportunity and he seized it.”

The special election sets up a virtual rerun of the race in the nearby 20th District, which attracted national attention.

Democrats in March barely retained the seat vacated by Kirsten Gillibrand when she was appointed to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Senate. Democratic newcomer Scott Murphy edged veteran Republican state lawmaker Jim Tedisco in the hotly contested race.

Asked if there is any truth to the NRCC’s charges of political chicanery in Mr. Obama’s decision, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor sidestepped the question last week.

“The president outlined the reasons he nominated Congressman McHugh in his remarks yesterday, so I’d refer you there,” Mr. Vietor said.

Republican Party strategists point to instances in which the president has nominated Republican officeholders, effectively removing them from the political arena. Earlier this year, Mr. Obama tapped New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg to be secretary of commerce at a time when Republicans were hoping Mr. Gregg would run for re-election in 2010. Mr. Gregg, after first accepting the nomination, withdrew his name but also decided not to seek a fourth Senate term.

Last month, Mr. Obama nominated Utah Republican Gov. Jon H. Huntsman Jr., a potential presidential rival in 2012, to be ambassador to China, effectively removing him from the 2012 election cycle.

Mr. Obama’s nomination of Mr. McHugh last week has only intensified partisan accusations that the White House is using the nominating process for its own political gain.

“You can imagine Rahm Emanuel looking at the congressional district map, and they see a competitive seat. You can’t ignore the fact that there are political motivations behind this,” a Republican Party strategist said Friday.

If Mr. McHugh, as expected, is confirmed and resigns his seat, New York Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson must set a date for a special election, which would be held within 30 to 40 days, or leave the seat vacant until the state’s general election date in November.

The upstate New York district has never been represented by Democrats, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and Mr. McHugh, a political moderate, has held the seat since 1992. He was re-elected in November with 65 percent of the vote, and Democrats were given little, if any, chance of beating him next year.

With no incumbent in the race, it’s a very different story, Democratic strategists said last week. “With the right candidate, Democrats can win,” said June O’Neill, Democratic state chairman.

Mr. Obama carried the district last year over Republican rival Sen. John McCain with 52 percent of the vote, though President George W. Bush won the district in 2004. Democrat Eliot Spitzer carried it in his 2006 gubernatorial campaign, as did Mrs. Clinton that same year.

“This is winnable with the right candidate, but it will be tough,” said Shripal Shah, a DCCC campaign spokesman. “Right now our focus is working with local Democrats to begin the process of recruiting our candidate.”

Still, Democrats acknowledge that they do not have much of a party structure in the district because of the Republicans’ political dominance there over the decades. Party registration favors the Republican Party 167,272 to 120,887.

But Democrats recently have made inroads in the district. State Assemblyman Darrel Aubertine won his seat in 2008 and is considering a possible bid for the House vacancy.

“This is a district that has increasingly trended in favor of the Democrats, but we believe it is winnable with a candidate who can carry on John McHugh’s legacy of working across party lines,” said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the NRCC.

Even with the 23rd District’s long-held Republican history, election trackers say the contest is impossible to forecast right now.

“The Democrats have a chance there, but it will be difficult if not virtually impossible to handicap the race without knowing who the nominees are, and we may not know that for a couple of months. Right now, our initial rating of the race is a sheer tossup,” said Nathan Gonzales, a political editor at the Rothenberg Political Report.

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