The abrupt announcement Tuesday that Congressman Bill Owens will retire from his seat in Congress means the sprawling 21st district is an open race.
The 21st Congressional district is one of the largest east of the Mississippi. It spans more than 16,000 square miles of northern New York, encompassing all or part of 12 counties. And now, after five years, the district’s sole Congressman has announced he will not run for re-election. Bill Owens was first elected in 2009 in a special election, becoming the first Democrat to take the seat since the Civil War. He won subsequent elections by narrow margins. Three Republicans - Elise Stefanik, Joe Gilbert and Michael Ring - announced their candidacies last year.
Essex County Republican Committee Chair Ron Jackson notes that the primary is in late June and candidates must begin circulating primary petitions in early March. Jackson says the committee has been vetting candidates since last summer, and more than half the counties have already endorsed a candidate. “After tonight half the candidates we’ll have already endorsed. So it’s kind of late in the process. I’m not saying people won’t get in. And people can run without being endorsed. Somebody who really wants to work hard could get in and force a primary. But as far as the endorsement process, it’s pretty late. Not impossibly late, but it’s pretty late for somebody to get in.”
The retirement of the incumbent may upset that apple cart, according to Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and Professor of Political Science Grant Reeher. “Having an open seat may change some of the dynamics for the Republican Party and for other people that hadn’t come forward before. So I don’t know whether that process is effectively closed. Whether there isn’t the ability for another potential candidate, perhaps with some name recognition and some resources, to come in and say 'I’d like to take a shot at this now'. So I think the fact that it’s an open seat changes the dynamic potentially in some way, not knowing their internal workings at this point.”
GOP State Senator Betty Little believes having the open seat will motivate more Republicans to consider a run. And she may step forward. “My focus is on the Senate. I’ve already said that I’m running for the Senate again this year. We did a lot of things last year that I thought were important to the North Country. And I certainly would like to continue and have a good year in the Senate again this year. That’s not to say that I have closed any doors. You know, several years ago I did try to run for a seat. But, um, you know we’ll see. I’d like to see where the committees go with this and it’s just so important to pick the candidate that can win the seat.”
Democrats were caught off guard by Congressman Owens’ announcement and now must find a candidate. Shortly after hearing the news, Clinton County Democratic Chair Marty Mannix expected numerous Democrats to be interested in running. “People who want to see change, people who want things to be accomplished, are drawn to the Democratic Party. And so I think we’re going to find that we will have candidates.”
The race will once again be scrutinized at a national level and SUNY Plattsburgh Professor of Political Science Tom Konda expects a flurry of political activity. “The Democrats of course want to hold onto all the seats they can and this one becomes more vulnerable without an incumbent to run in it. But as there’s no obvious person out there in either party less than a year before the election, I expect that any number of people may try to throw their hats in the ring and see if they can make any headway. And I anticipate that both parties will put a fair amount of money and effort into the district because there are so few seriously competitive districts out there.”
The Green Party’s Donald Hassig announced his candidacy for the seat last year. Other possible candidates being floated include ex-Democratic Congressman Scott Murphy, who represented the adjacent district, and Dede Scozzafava, the former Republican Assemblywoman who faced Owens in a three-way race before endorsing him in the closing days of the 2009 special election.