Senate Challengers Pit New York Against Itself
Democratic support is strong in the city, but less-liberal upstate vote may turn election.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — From Esther Paine's 190-acre vegetable farm in Fulton, N.Y., the US Senate race between Republican incumbent Alfonse D'Amato and his challenger Charles Schumer looks like an "awful, mixed up mess."
In fact, it is a slugfest - a mean, muddy, hard-hitting campaign between two tough, shrewd, well-financed candidates.
One of the tightest races in the nation, it's also one of the few where a Democrat has a good opportunity of unseating a Republican incumbent. That's key - because a Schumer win could help keep the Republicans from gaining the coveted 60-seat majority they need to end a filibuster.
And as the campaign enters its final three weeks, it's people like Ms. Paine who may well determine its outcome. Of the 10 percent of voters who remain undecided, most live in the vast, fairly conservative north country - a Republican stronghold where residents cast a skeptical eye on the big city to the south.
"We're farmers, we look for a little sympathy," says Paine, who was born and raised in New York State, but has never once visited the New York City. "It gets everything - at least, that's the way we feel."
While the distrust between New York's urban and rural dwellers may be particularly strong, finding a way to satisfy vastly different constituencies is a juggling act politicians across the country have learned to finesse. They balance the needs of Chicago's South Side against Illinois farmers, or weigh the desires of Miami's Cuban population against those of the Keys' tourist industry.
Here in New York, both candidates are doing their utmost to appeal to voters in the liberal, raucous city, the comfortable suburbs, and the mostly rural north, but it is upstate where the lion's share of the votes will be cast and that's where the battle is shaping up.
"This is get acquainted time for Schumer upstate," says Lee Miringoff of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "This is the time D'Amato can paint Schumer with a broad brush."
And the struggling three-term incumbent is trying to make sure the average upstater sees his opponent - a Brooklyn congressman - as a big-city, big-spending liberal.
"He votes against [upstate's] interests and has continually, from his days in the legislature to his days in Congress - whether it's dairy farmers, homeowners, or people who use automobiles," says Senator D'Amato.
Representative Schumer is just as determined to prove he's a pragmatic moderate who'll do more for upstate's struggling economy in his first term than D'Amato - who refers to himself with pride as Senator Pothole - has done during his entire three terms.
"D'Amato's been in office 18 years as upstate has lost job after job," says Schumer. "Every job that has left Buffalo or Rochester or Syracuse or Albany is a pothole Senator D'Amato hasn't filled."
In New York City, where about 27 percent of the votes were cast last election, a poll released yesterday put Schumer ahead by a 2-to-1 margin. In the suburbs, where about 30 percent of the electorate votes, D'Amato tops Schumer by a slim 5 points. Upstate, where some 40 percent of the votes will be cast, D'Amato leads by almost 20 points.
"There's a real suspicion of New York City politicians upstate, and D'Amato has to take advantage of that," says Marty McLaughlin, a New York Democratic consultant who ran Mayor Ed Koch's unsuccessful bid for governor in 1982.
Right after the primary, D'Amato and the Republicans tried to define Schumer and other Democrats running for statewide office as liberal "sharks" swimming up from the city to devour the tax dollars of upstate's hardworking people. The cartoon ad was complete with the soundtrack from "Jaws" thumping ominously beneath the narration.
It was meant for people like Tracy Denely of Liverpool, a suburb of Syracuse. "[The city's] a black hole. It takes all of our tax dollars, it makes the whole region appear pushy - not good for business," she says. But the D'Amato ad didn't sway Ms. Denely. She's still undecided.
Democrats who charged the ad was misleading and anti-Semitic actually paid to have it played in the city so voters there could see what Republicans really thought of them.
"That could start a new trend," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia of the media-market switch.
The nasty tone of the race has turned off many voters. Statewide, the airwaves are filled with D'Amato ads calling Schumer a "liberal" as if it were a dirty word and castigating him for missing votes in Congress. Schumer has countered fiercely, charging that with D'Amato there have been "too many lies for too long." Each accuses the other of being soft on crime, not defending Social Security and Medicare, and raising too many taxes.
"That's all they keep on doing, it's just back and forth and back and forth - talking about who's lying and who's not when you really don't know either one," says Samantha Butler, a newcomer to Syracuse.
The Quinnipiac College Poll released yesterday shows that both candidates' approval ratings have dropped precipitously, and voters blame the negative ads. "In a mud fight, everyone gets dirty," says Maurice Carroll, director of the poll.
For her part, Paine, the farmer from Fulton, is ready for change. While the economy in the rest of the US has boomed, it's still struggling here. And she says 18 years has been long enough for D'Amato.
"That's the way we feel, especially farmers," says Paine. "At least a change makes everybody feel better."