Once a certain loser, New York Republican now an unlikely bellwether

If you want to know how this year's elections are going to turn out, I wouldn't look to Glenn Beck, Tea Partiers, cash totals or even toss-up Senate races. Instead, I'd keep an eye on what happens to George Phillips.

Who is George Phillips, you ask? He's a schoolteacher and a friend of mine. He's also a Republican candidate for Congress who shouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning his race. But at this moment, his odds seem to have improved, perhaps to those of a snowball in Washington, D.C., during August. If they get better still, then Nov. 2 is going to be a long day for Democrats.

I first met George when he was working on human rights issues for Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and we became close friends. In 2005, he married and returned to his home town, near Binghamton, N.Y., to teach at the Catholic school he once attended.

When he told me about his plans to run for Congress against the long-entrenched Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey in 2008, I didn't discourage him. But I wasn't surprised at all when he lost by a 28-point margin.

When George told me he was running again this year, I'll admit that I became a bit worried about him. George is one of the most sincere and optimistic people I've ever met. He'd make a great congressman, but this was a hopeless cause. Hinchey has never received less than 64 percent of the vote since his 22nd Congressional District was drawn. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans there, four to three. The last time Hinchey had a close race was 1994.

When mutual friends asked me whether George could win, I said “probably not,” but I was being charitable. A more appropriate response would have been “Hell, no.”

And then last week, George's campaign produced an internal poll for his donors, showing Hinchey leading, 44 to 37 percent. About half of the voters had heard of George Phillips. In the time since he took his previous poll in March, the margin had shrunk by 18 points.

All campaigners — even close friends — hype their own chances, so I'm skeptical about the poll. Yet it does jibe with what we see happening elsewhere in the country. If you were to ask me about George's chances today, I'd still say, “Probably not.” But this time there's no charity involved in that answer. And that's bad news for Democrats. If this district is even close, then none of them is safe.

On my desk, I have a list of 65 congressional districts currently held by Democrats that I believe have a reasonable chance of flipping. As much as I like George, his race does not make my list. It still wouldn't be on my list if I added the next 15 races in order of competitiveness.

In the midterm elections of 2006, Democrats reached their tipping point — and won their House majority — in part because a number of longtime Republican members (examples: Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota, Jim Leach of Iowa, Jim Ryun of Kansas) were caught sleeping at the switch. These were entrenched incumbents who had become isolated from their constituents, but realized it too late.

Hinchey fits this profile. His campaign showed less than $300,000 on hand as of the last reporting period. In a year when taxpayers are outraged over spending, Hinchey's local newspapers have slammed him for two earmarks he obtained, from which he and a business partner benefited financially.

In past election cycles, Hinchey has run his mouth freely with no negative consequences to his career. He said in 2007 that he had “evidence” Karl Rove planted the Rathergate memos. In 2008, he called for the nationalization of the oil industry. So he had no inhibitions last November about saying that the Bush administration “intentionally let [Osama] Bin Laden get away” in order to justify war with Iraq.

Despite all of this, George Phillips should not be anywhere within 20 points of Maurice Hinchey. If this one is close, take it as a sign that Republicans are running the table everywhere. And if George actually wins, then don't bet against a snowstorm in Washington next summer.

David Freddoso is The Examiner's online opinion editor. He can be reached at dfreddoso@washingtonexaminer.com.

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