No way the Democrats can find anyone credible to run for Chris Lee’s seat, right?

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NY-26. (wikimedia.org)
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The Democratic Party, like just-resigned congressman Chris Lee not too long ago, is trolling for talent.

To be precise, the Democrats are looking for a candidate willing to run on their line in the heavily Republican 26th Congressional district in western New York district. Ideally, but not necessarily, this person would be a resident of one of the seven counties between Rochester and Buffalo, someone with a business background and no voting record, the means to self-fund and a wholesome biography.

The political fallout of the Lee resignation was immediate, and the instant conventional wisdom was that the jockeying to succeed him would take place exclusively among Republicans. The G.O.P. just picked up a record six seats in New York and Lee, once half of the party’s delegation from the Empire State, occupied a district tailored to stay Republican. There are 26,000 more enrolled Republicans than Democrats there; 39 percent of the voters are enrolled Republicans, against 33 percent who are Democrats. In other words, the Democrats have no business winning this election.

But I’ve written that sentence two times already in the past two years. And twice, in special elections here, Democrats have pulled out improbable wins.

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I don't have a useful guess at the odds that they'd be able to repeat the trick here. But it is worth remembering that there are a few quirks that make special elections extra-special in New York. First, candidates and Congress-people need not actually live in the district they seek to represent. Second, since there’s no time for a primary, party leaders from the relevant counties can get together in a back room to pick whichever candidate they want.

Democrats’ first special-election opportunity came in the 2009 contest to replace Kirsten Gillibrand, a sharp-elbowed lawyer with a political pedigree who had won election in the 20th District(starting in the upper Hudson Valley, including red-tinted suburbs of Albany and stretching north to Lake Placid) after revelations the incumbent Republican had scuffled with his wife and scared her into calling the police. Gillibrand worked the district tirelessly and won, and then held onto the seat during the 2008 Obama tidal wave. Gov. David Paterson eventually named her a senator, to replace Hillary Clinton.

Within hours, Republicans settled on Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco as their candidate after a less-than-open process. According to interviews with several chairs, G.O.P. State Chairman Joe Mondello essentially forced Tedisco, whose wife has a house in Saratoga but who has always lived outside the district in Schenectady County, upon the chairmen. Some of them had been backing Sen. Betty Little of Queensbury or former Assembly minority leader John Faso of Kinderhook, and felt there was no fair chance to compete.

The bitter feelings hampered Tedisco, as did the look-at-me style of public communication he cultivated in the Assembly minority. As a Congressional candidate, he turned out to be no match for his Democratic opponent, Scott Murphy. A venture capitalist whose wife was part of a large dairy-farming family, the telegenic Murphy talked about his experience building businesses in the district, and how he would back the Democrats’ stimulus package and work with Obama and Gillibrand, two figures polling well, at that time, in the district.

Murphy didn't have much of a political record—he had served as a political aide in Missouri and debated some Republicans when he was a student at Harvard—and claimed, credibly, that he was just a businessman committed to “common- sense solutions” to our problems. Next to him, Tedisco looked like just another pol. After a protracted recount, Murphy edged Tedisco by under 1,000 votes.

The next special came a few weeks later: Obama named Rep. John McHugh, a long-time Republican whose district included the sprawling base at Fort Drum to be secretary of the Army.

The race to succeed him unfolded more slowly than the post-Gillibrand special, because a fight over prisoner repatriation stalled McHugh’s confirmation.

Republicans settled on Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, considered liberal by some for her support of same-sex marriage and the Employee Free Choice Act, as their candidate. Democrats took longer. State Senator Darrel Aubertine, a dairy farmer (who still wins milking competitions) from Cape Vincent was the first choice, but a farcical, embarrassing power struggle in the State Senate kept him in the Democratic conference and of the House race, to the chagrin of local party leaders. (Aubertine lost his race in 2010, and has since been named commissioner of agriculture and markets by Andrew Cuomo.)

Rep. Steve Israel, a Long Island Democrat who was in 2009 charged with recruiting candidates for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told me at the time it was a “good-news, bad-news district” because on one hand Obama had won there, but on the other the Republicans had a big registration edge and the district had never elected a Democrat.

So the Democrats cast a wide net, and turned up several candidates. There was the former head of the Democratic Rural Conference, the retired mayor of Oswego, the deep-pocketed attorney from Manhattan (who grew up in the district) and some lawyer from Plattsburgh named Bill Owens.

After a day of interviews at a quiet resort in Blue Mountain Lake, the chairs picked Owens. It smacked of an inside job—the party chairs picked a man who could immediately invest lots of money, would stay on the poll- tested Democratic message, and once again could claim with a straight face that, as an attorney, he had helped create jobs. But his opponents had never heard of him, and noted, with some annoyance, that he wasn't even a registered Democrat.

“In order to be a serious contender in New York State, it seems, you have to be able to lay about $200,000 on the table to be looked at seriously," said John Sullivan, the Oswego mayor and former state Democratic Party official and, most recently Medicaid Inspector General. "People who have fought the good fight and rolled the rock up the hill for many years for the Democratic Party are left in the dust. It’s disconcerting to me.” He also said, “We had this ersatz process which, in my view, was dominated by the White House political office and the DCCC. I suspect the same will, again, ensue.” So do I. On Monday, Erie County Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan said that DCCC operatives are combing the district for candidates. So far three have been identified: Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz, Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul and Mark Manna, a town councilman in the Town of Amherst. (He, incidentally, is the only one who lives in the district.)