First-term Republican U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney was an early supporter of Donald Trump who has drawn comparisons to the president by brashly claiming some people who commit mass murders are Democrats and promoting a petition to lock up Hillary Clinton.
That just seemed like good politics in an upstate New York district that went big for Trump in 2016. But now that Tenney is locked in a close race with Democratic challenger Anthony Brindisi, she’s shifted to a softer tone of bipartisanship and downplayed some of her earlier comments.
Tenney’s evolving take on Trump and the Democrats shows the delicate balance many Republicans are trying to strike in tight races around the country. They want to rally Trump supporters in the GOP base, but not at the expense of moderate Republicans or independents turned off by the president.
Brindisi argues that Tenney’s hyper-partisan approach during her first two years in Congress shows she lacks the temperament or the interest in bipartisanship necessary to represent the district. Brindisi, 39, now serves in the state Assembly, the same body that Tenney served in before winning election to Congress in 2016.
“I’m fed up with what I see in Washington,” Brindisi told a group of local farmers at a candidate meet-and-greet in Cazenovia last week. “We have big problems but we won’t solve these problems until we sit down together.”
If Democrats are going to win the House next month, they have to compete in districts like this one, which cuts a north-south swath from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania line, taking in old manufacturing cities like Utica and Binghamton, along with rural areas dotted by dairy farms.
Unlike New York state as a whole, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-1, the 22nd District is bright red. Republicans dominate the voting rolls, and Trump beat Clinton by nearly 16 percentage points in the 2016 election.
Nonetheless, the race between Brindisi and Tenney is believed to be close, and Democrats like their chances. Real Clear Politics and the Cook Political Report both rate the race as a tossup. The last public poll was done six weeks ago by Siena College and gave Brindisi a slight advantage.
“Tenney is barely holding her own,” said Siena pollster Steve Greenberg. He noted that men support Tenney, while women are backing Brindisi — a finding that mirrors national surveys of opinions about Trump. “There’s no doubt this will be a barn burner ’til the end.”
Trump remains popular in the district, according to the survey. He became the first president since Harry Truman to visit the area when he attended an August fundraiser for Tenney in Utica. It was political payback for a loyal supporter who had backed the president’s tax overhaul and the bid to repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
“I’m here for Claudia,” Trump said during the visit. “She has been incredible in Congress. She has helped us so much.”
He may have also recognized something of himself in Tenney, a self-proclaimed outsider with no shortage of critics in both parties.
When Democrats in Congress sat through Trump’s State of the State address without applauding, Tenney said they were “un-American, and they don’t love our country.”
Following the high school shooting at Parkland, Florida, in February, Tenney linked mass murders to Democrats, claiming without any evidence that “so many” of the people who commit those crimes are members of the party. She later accused journalists of politicizing the tragedy after her comments were reported.
In April, she urged people to sign a petition with the title “Lock them Up!” calling for a criminal prosecution of Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey.
And more recently, her campaign has tried to link Brindisi to the mafia, noting that his father worked as an attorney for organized crime figures decades ago in Utica. An internal staff memo about Brindisi’s family, given to the media by the campaign, warned staffers to check their locks and to avoid going out alone at night.
Brindisi’s supporters said the accusation was demeaning to Italian-Americans, and he said the claims were “false attacks” used to distract voters.
Tenney, 57, said her comments and rhetoric have been exaggerated and taken out of context. She said while she doesn’t always agree with the president, their close relationship allows her to advocate for districts like hers. And she blames Democrats for the polarization, saying she’s eager to work with them, noting wistfully that “we used to all be able to respectfully disagree.”
“There are really good Democrats in the House,” she said. “They’re good people.”
Whether Tenney’s softer approach works or not, the voters who gathered last week at a local farm to meet Brindisi agreed that both parties need to focus more on representing their districts and less on attacking each other.
“It just seems like the two parties aren’t doing much about it, and we’re losing the middle,” farm manager Shawn Brossard said. “There’s a lot of common sense missing right now.”