Louise Slaughter

Will loss of Slaughter cost Democrats her seat?

Rep. Louise Slaughter's Rochester-area seat could be competitive.

Political figures in New York and Washington, D.C., are mourning the death of Rep. Louise Slaughter, the longest serving member of the New York’s congressional delegation, and a longtime leader on women’s rights. Democrats in both places may soon start worrying about the partisan control of her seat, as her closely-divided district could offer Republicans a rare pickup opportunity.

Slaughter was first elected to her Rochester-area seat in 1986 and went on to win reelection 15 times, rarely facing significant Republican challenges. However, in 2014, she only narrowly won reelection against Gates Town Supervisor Mark Assini, defeating him by 869 votes. While losing the advantage of incumbency could increase the risk that Democrats cannot hold the seat, 2018 is shaping up to be a much better year for the party than 2014.

Dr. James Maxwell is currently the only candidate seeking the Republican nomination.

Prominent Democrats in the area include Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren. Warren won reelection in November, but was rumored to be in the running to join Gov. Andrew Cuomo on his ticket as lieutenant governor. The open seat in the 25th Congressional District could offer another political opportunity for Warren.

Before Slaughter was elected to Congress, narrowly defeating incumbent Republican Rep. Fred Eckert by one percentage point, the seat had been reliably Republican. While Eckert only served one term in Congress, he had succeeded GOP Rep. Barber Conable, who had served for 20 years. Slaughter, who previously had served four years in the state Assembly, later said that she had nearly been defeated in the race against Eckert by sexism – women told her their husbands couldn’t vote for her because she was a woman.

Assini’s near-victory four years ago may not necessarily indicate that the seat is vulnerable to a Republican takeover, however. His strong performance occurred during the Republican wave in 2014 which expanded the GOP majority in the House and allowed the party to capture the Senate. The political winds this year may be shifting in the opposite direction, as President Donald Trump's unpopularity – particularly in New York – and the surprise victory of Democrat Conor Lamb in a recent Pennsylvania special election indicate impending Democratic victories in November.

Grant Reeher, the director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, said that Slaughter’s seat was likely to remain in Democratic hands, notably because the district includes Rochester, the third most populous city in the state. He also noted that while moderate Republicans had historically represented the areas surrounding Rochester, it is becoming more difficult for centrists across the country to receive their party’s nomination.

Rochester has a Democratic mayor and, like most major cities, leans to the left politically. The House district has voted solidly Democratic in past presidential elections, supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008 by wide margins. The district also has a Democratic advantage in voter registration, with over 180,000 active Democratic registered voters, compared to just over 120,000 active Republicans.

“There's four or five different pieces of the puzzle, and they all lean toward a Democrat getting that seat – what's going on in the ground with Democratic activists, particularly centered in urban areas, the relative short supply of more moderate Republicans, and then what we are seeing in terms of the way the district voted for president in 2016,” Reeher said.

After defeating Eckert, Slaughter won successive elections by a wide margin until 2014. Assini ran a conservative campaign that highlighted his anti-abortion and pro-gun stances. He ran against her again in 2016, but was defeated by a wider margin. Although he considered challenging Slaughter for a third time in the upcoming election, he withdrew from consideration in January after learning the Monroe County Conservative Party would endorse Maxwell.

Reeher noted that Republican Rep. John Katko, who represents the neighboring 24th Congressional District, won reelection in 2016 even though his Syracuse-area district supported Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. However, Katko had a record in Congress of supporting his district’s needs and had been critical of then-candidate Trump. His seat is also considered somewhat vulnerable in the upcoming election.

“Katko has a track record,” Reeher said. “Whether a Republican just running for an open seat against a Democrat who is able to position themselves in the right way and also wrap themselves in the mantle of Louise Slaughter – that's a different equation.”

New York law requires that Gov. Andrew Cuomo fill a congressional seat by a special election if the vacancy occurs before July 1 of the last year of the term. There is precedent for Cuomo to call the special election for the same day as the general election in November, which is what former Gov. David Paterson did in 2010 to fill the vacancy left by Rep. Eric Massa.