(CNN)Republican congressional candidates across the country are approaching President Donald Trump in markedly different ways. And nowhere is that clearer than in upstate New York.
Though the President won both districts in 2016, top Republican operatives believe the races are similar: Neither Republican is particularly well-liked at home, meaning Trump’s popularity and the image of the Republican Party will be key to whether Republicans hold onto the districts.
But Tenney, a bombastic, conservative congresswoman known for her fiery rhetoric and propensity to often make head-scratching comments, has fully embraced Trump and made that strategy central to her campaign against Anthony Brindisi, an assemblyman from Utica. The district is more conservative than her neighbor — Trump won the 22nd by 16 percentage points in 2016 — and Tenney’s rhetoric reflects those values.
In contrast, Faso, a more mild-mannered Republican, has eschewed some of Trumpism, voting against his tax plan and dismissing the President’s role in his re-election bid. Despite that, he still has the President’s support, as Trump tweeted an endorsement for Faso on Saturday.
But that has not kept one of the President’s key political tactics — the use of race — out of Faso’s contest against Antonio Delgado, an African-American Harvard law graduate and Rhodes Scholar.
Ads from the Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee have focused on Delgado’s brief career as rapper AD the Voice, labeling him derisively as “big city rapper Antonio Delgado,” questioning some of the lyrics in his songs and suggesting he would be more fit running in places like New York City or Los Angeles. The ads are dripping in race-based politics and use white voters to suggest Delgado doesn’t understand the predominately white district.
Faso has played coy with the ads, in part because they provide Republicans with a powerful way to question Delgado’s ties to a district he moved to shortly before announcing his bid for Congress. In the span of five minutes on Friday, Faso told reporters here at the quaint Inn at Leeds that he didn’t like a lot of the ads and distanced himself from them — “These are not my ads,” he said twice — while also endorsing the substance of the attacks.
“The fact is that my opponent has never owned up to his words and he just moved into the district,” Faso said. “His words matter and because he has no record in our district … it is natural that people will ask, ‘do these words reflect your views?'”
Each race will be closely watched on Tuesday, both as a sign of which approach to Trump fared better and whether Democrats, aiming to make inroads in areas that were wooed by Trump, will be able to crack the red wall the President created.
Republicans have been sounding alarm bells in each race: If Democrats are able to win either or both races, they said, it’s almost a certainty that Democrats will control the House next year.
“If she loses this race,” said Jim Brock, a Tenney friend and Republican operative, “you can just say goodbye to Republicans controlling Congress.”
Republicans say ‘import,’ Democrats say inspiration
Delgado, standing before an almost entirely white crowd at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Hyde Park on Friday, addressed something that has been ubiquitous on television: His rap career.
“I know you have heard of one of my careers,” he said, “because you can’t get away from it.”
It got a laugh from a friendly crowd and the Democrat moved onto his platform, namely health care, where he wants to move towards Medicare for all, and campaign finance reform, where he rejects corporate PAC money. No one at the event asked him about the ads.
Down the road, though, was a distinctly different speech to an almost entirely white audience.
“We sure don’t need a new import,” Faso told the Republican audience at an event featuring Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, “to represent us in Washington, DC.”
The divide makes something clear about the race to represent this district: Republicans are seeking to, in the words of Democrats, “otherize” Delgado, a candidate who was born and raised nearby in Schenectady, moved away to pursue a career but then moved back with his wife and kids to run for Congress.
Delgado dismisses the attacks as not reflective of the people in the district.
“They (Republicans) have a low opinion of people in the district that they are assuming the people in this district could be swayed by hateful divisive approaches to campaigning,” he said in an interview. “It would be good if he (Faso) would denounce them. It would have sent the right signal. To me, it would have meant to be a leader.”
But the ads have forced Democrats and Republicans alike to question why top GOP operatives believe attacks like those would work in their pastoral towns and hamlets.
Sitting in the church on Friday, it didn’t take Katherine Baldwin long to answer that question.
“I mean, just look around,” she said, noting the nearly all white audience. “In our country and around the world, people are scared of what is other and different to them. There is not a lot of diversity in this district and as a white woman, I see that. I see that here, I see that at any event I have gone to.”
Democratic operatives believe the ads have backfired. The attacks have enraged Democrats and boosted Delgado’s fundraising — allowing him to raise an astonishing $3.8 million in the third quarter of 2018 alone. And polls show the race deadlocked. But Republicans have stuck with the strategy for months, hoping it will make people question Delgado’s roots.
At Faso’s event, however, it wasn’t clear that even strong Republican voters were that motivated by the ads. Some were even uncomfortable with them, they said.
Lou Barbaria, a 70-year-old retired law enforcement officer from Cairo, said he was voting for Faso because he believed Delgado “would go against a lot of things I want.” It has nothing to do, he said, with rap.
“Whatever, I was in a band when I was young,” Barbaria said with a laugh. “I mean, I wasn’t in a rap band, but I did street corner doo-wop stuff. But I am sure there are things that I said on stage that might have offended.”
Not everyone agreed with Barbaria. Tom Andreassen, a 71-year-old Vietnam veteran from Leeds, said he didn’t like “what Delgado has done with his rap music.”
“A leopard may change its colors,” Andreassen said when asked if he thinks Delgado has changed, “but it’s not going change its spots.”
But Andreassen’s view was unique. More often, voters dismissed the rap attacks and instead knocked Delgado’s views on health care or taxes.
Gail Kargle, a 74-year old from Cairo, made this clear: “I like Delgado. I like his presentation. But I don’t like what he stands for. But I have no problem with his rap. I have no problem with any of that.”
When asked if she likes rap at all, Kargle said no, but then took a long pause.
“I guess I do like Pitbull,” she said with surprise. “I’m 74 years old and I like him!”
The see-saw in upstate New York
Voters around Binghamton and Utica, the two population centers in Tenney’s congressional district, could be forgiven for having a bit of whiplash.
Over the last decade, voters have bounced from one party to the next in presidential and congressional elections, regularly see-sawing between parties. In 2008, the area backed Barack Obama. Four years later, Republican Mitt Romney won the district by one percentage point. But the real eye-opener happened in 2016, when Donald Trump shellacked Hillary Clinton by 16 percentage points.
For Brindisi, the moderate state assembly member with deep ties in Utica, Trump’s success in the area does not conflict with his candidacy as a Democrat. Instead of focusing on the President, Brindisi has run on hyper-local issues, including airing ads against the local cable company, and tries to avoid knocking the President.
“Most people in this district are fed up with Washington,” the Democrat said. “They are looking for someone who is going to represent the interests of the people back home.”
That statement is true for many congressional districts. But Brindisi is happy to take that one step further, by citing Trump’s 2016 attacks against Clinton to ding Tenney.
“I think many of the things he campaigned for when he was running in 2016, when he was running against Hillary Clinton, I could say the same things about Claudia Tenney,” Brindisi said in his Binghamton campaign office. “Trump would always say during the 2016 election there was a reason why the Wall Street banks and the hedge fund managers and the big financial institutions are supporting my opponent because they know the system will continue to be rigged in their favor if she is elected. I could say the same thing about Claudia Tenney.”
That may be where Tenney’s similarities with Clinton end, because her rhetoric is pure Trump.
Earlier this year, she suggested that Democrats are more prone to carrying out mass shootings, she has questioned farmers who are worried about the trade war, and when a story was published about Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson buying a $31,000 dining room set for his office, Tenney blamed the “deep state.”
Brock, a close friend who grew up with Tenney, said he believes it “doesn’t hurt” the congresswoman to be rhetorically in line with Trump.
But what could hurt, voters said, was being viewed as not being the “change candidate” in a district that has clearly preferred exactly that.
“It is because he’s never ran (for Congress) before, because he is new,” Bridget Kane, a Democratic candidate for a local race around Binghamton, said to describe Brindisi’s appeal.
“They were desperate for change” in 2016, she added, and they are just as desperate now.
Polls have shown Brindisi and Tenney, who declined repeated requests for an interview for this story, in a nearly deadlocked race, a fact that has beget considerable outside spending in the contest.
According to a study by the Wesleyan Media Project, more than 12,000 commercials aired in the district between mid-September and mid-October — the most of any district in the country at the time.
In order to win, Brindisi is clear-eyed about the fact he needs to win over Republican voters, and Tenney has been helpful on that front by turning off local Republicans like Yusuf Harper, a retired physician who runs an organic farm in Norwich, New York.
Brindisi is the first Democrat Harder has ever volunteered for, he said, and, although there are issues that worry him about the left-leaning party, he can’t bring himself to back Tenney.
“Yes, he is a Democrat and there is some risk there,” he said. “But the alternative is just not good.”