Democrats survey their options to succeed Bill Owens

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ALBANY—Rep. Bill Owens' decision not to seek re-election took New York's political class by surprise on Tuesday, and left Democrats searching for a candidate who can protect a seat that Republicans are eager to reclaim.

Saying it was “time for me to undertake new endeavors and spend more time with my family,” Owens' announcement came on the eve of required fundraising reports, just weeks before potential candidates would start circulating nominating petitions ahead of a June primary.

Republicans have already begun to coalesce around Elise Stefanik, a former aide to George W. Bush, who began fund-raising for a run last year.

Some Republicans immediately crowed that Owens' departure was a symbol of electoral problems for Democrats this year, and Democrats conceded the seat will be much harder to hold without a recognizable incumbment.

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Owens' departure could force Democrats to choose between a party stalwart with deep ties to the district, or a candidate with a more tenuous local connection, but deeper pockets.

Several observers noted that ex-Rep. Scott Murphy, who represented a neighboring district, lives within the boundaries of Owens' district, after it was re-drawn in 2012.

Other Democrats who were immediately mentioned are Assemblywoman Addie Russell, who hails from Watertown; Darrel Aubertine a former state senator and agriculture commissioner who now works for Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and opted against a run in 2009; and longtime Plattsburgh town supervisor Bernie Bassett.

On the wealthier side, there's Murphy, as well as Brian McGrath, a Lowville native who now works as a lawyer in New York City.

Owens, a Plattsburgh attorney, was first elected during a 2009 special election called to replace Rep. John McHugh, who was named Secretary of the Army.

Owens, who won with a plurality of the vote, was the first Democrat to capture New York's northern-most congressional district since the Civil War, but his victories in 2009 and 2010 were due in large part to divisions on the Republican side.

Dede Scozzafava, an assemblywoman who now works for Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was the endorsed Republican candidate, but was rejected by many national Republican groups for her positions in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act, a union-favored measure known as “card check,” and for abortion rights. Those groups, seizing on the then-nascent Tea Party movement, backed Doug Hoffman, an accountant who ran on the Conservative Party line. Scozzafava dropped out the weekend before the election, and endorsed Owens. Hoffman's defeat, which would have been the first Tea Party fueled congressional victory, ended in quiet defeat.

“It was an uphill battle when he was first nominated, and what really cinched the deal was the split within the Republican Party,” said John Sullivan, a former mayor of Oswego who considered a run in 2009 and said he will consider it again, despite living just outside the district. (New York election law mandates only that congressional candidates live within the state.)

“Anything could happen, but it would be almost back to square one in terms of the potential for a Democratic candidate to succeed in a head-on election for a Republican," said Sullivan. "That said, the district's changed, the district has had a Democratic congressman for six years, and that changes the Democratic Party's ability to be a real contender. The glass ceiling's been shattered.”

Owens was re-elected in 2010 when Hoffman ran again, splitting the right-wing vote between himself and Republican-backed Matt Doheny. Buoyed by a presidential year, Owens beat Doheny in 2012, even though he ran without any right-flank issues.

It's unclear if other elected Republicans who have previously considered runs will step forward now that Owens is stepping aside. Stefanik is vying with Joseph Gilbert and Michael Ring.

The district contains more enrolled Republicans than Democrats, but broke for Obama in 2012 by a 52 to 46 margin.

The district was re-drawn in 2012 to encompass the foothills of the Adirondacks in Warren and Saratoga counties. It also includes the Champlain and St. Lawrence valleys as well as the entire Adirondack Park.

The Cook Political Report rated it as a “toss up” after Owens' announcement.