How Claudia Tenney shakes up the landscape of NY's new 23rd District

Claudia Tenney's entry into the race has shaken up the political landscape in the 23rd District and raised eyebrows among political observers on both sides of the aisle.

Chris Potter
Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin

The proposed 23rd Congressional District sprawls hundreds of miles across more than a dozen counties, covering large swaths of the Southern Tier and Western New York, but might its next representative hail from outside those broad borders?

Claudia Tenney, an Oneida County Republican losing her seat in the 22nd District as a result of the redistricting process, announced her intention this week to run for Congress in the 23rd District.

The seat is open as longtime Rep. Tom Reed (R-Corning), first elected to office in 2010, is not seeking another term this fall. The entry of a sitting Congresswoman into the race has shaken up the political landscape in the district and raised eyebrows among political observers on both sides of the aisle.

“I think if a Democrat did that, the first thing Republicans would scream is carpetbagger,” said Dora Leland, Chair of the Chemung County Democratic Committee. “Here is an outsider coming in to run. How is it representative to have someone represent you who actually doesn’t live in your district? I just don’t see how that would resonate with people across the district.”

Tenney’s hometown is New Hartford, just outside Utica. The area is now part of the 19th District under New York’s redrawn congressional maps, which were approved by the Democratic-led Legislature on Wednesday, Feb. 2, and sent to Gov. Kathy Hochul's desk.

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The map also expanded the geographic reach of the 23rd District to include Buffalo suburbs like Hamburg and Orchard Park in the west and parts of Broome, Chenango and Cortland counties in the east.

While her current residence is outside NY-23, Tenney noted she has ties to the eastern end of the redrawn district. Tenney's current district includes parts of four counties — Chenango, Cortland, Broome and Tioga — that are included in the new map of NY-23.

[A look at how redistricting shapes up in New York]

She also has business interests in the commercial printing and manufacturing industry in Chenango County. Tenney said she is the co-owner of Mid-York Press, which was founded by her grandfather in 1946 and employs around 80 people. The Sherburne facility, though, sits in the proposed 19th District.

Federal law outlines no local residency requirements for Congressional representatives or candidates, though representatives must reside in the same state as their district.

Then President Donald Trump talks with Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., as he arrives on Air Force One at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, New York.

Tenney generally has a more conservative voting record than Reed, who is a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. Reed has bucked much of the Republican Party on a few high-profile votes in the House, supporting certification of the 2020 election results and the 2021 Infrastructure Bill.

“(Tenney) is a very strong conservative voice in the conservative movement of New York. I think she will not change in regards to that philosophical makeup,” said Reed. “I’m a proud Republican, a proud conservative, but I am in my heart, a pragmatist. I want to get something done and I believe the best way you do that is potentially by incrementalism and working with people, even people on the other side, where you can achieve the best results for the American people by getting something done.

“That being said, I’ll let people introduce themselves to Claudia and Claudia introduce herself to the people of the 23rd Congressional District.”

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How does Tenney change the race in NY-23?

Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, Steuben County, represents the 23rd Congressional District. Tom Reed

Tenney is among just two Republican candidates to formally launch campaigns in the 23rd District. Joe Sempolinski, Reed’s former district director, announced his candidacy in July. Reed has thus far backed Sempolinski, an Elmira native who currently resides in the Steuben County village of Canisteo.

Tenney will likely have a massive cash advantage over the field. Her campaign has already raised over $1.15 million, while Sempolinski raised just over $100,000 in the first three months of his campaign.

“Obviously Congresswoman Tenney is a very formidable person. She’s a sitting member of Congress and certainly I respect that,” said Sempolinski, who chairs the Steuben County Republican Committee. “I think you would see fewer people ultimately decide to run if that is what happens after the courts have their peace.”

Sempolinski expects the new district maps drawn up by Democrats to be challenged in court. Republicans, who now hold eight of New York's 27 seats in Congress, could see that number cut in half after the 2022 election.

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The 23rd District, though, is among several upstate districts expected to remain solidly Republican. The new boundaries eliminated the city of Ithaca from the district, removing one of the few Democratic enclaves.

“Clearly the district was drawn to discourage competition in other parts of the state,” said Sempolinski. “I think it’s great we have a rural Republican district in this particular version, but the fact that you’re going to only four districts in the entire state of New York that lean in one political direction, that plan as a whole is sort of tainted. Even if there are some benefits for one district, that doesn’t change the fact that the entire project is a problem.”

Joe Sempolinski

Most observers expect the NY-23 seat to remain in Republican hands following the 2022 election, placing extra focus on the Republican battle for the seat. Allegany County Republican Committee Chairman Dwight “Mike” Healy would prefer the party align behind one candidate and avoid a primary.

A few other current and former elected officials have been floated as possible candidates. Among them is former state Senator Cathy Young, who represented the western end of the district in Albany before leaving for a post at Cornell University in 2019, and her successor, George Borrello.

Tenney’s war chest and name recognition as a sitting member of Congress may discourage challengers, noted Healy, who has followed Tenney’s career from afar.

“I think she’s a fine representative, but I would prefer to have someone from our area representing us,” said Healy. “I certainly have nothing against her and if it works out that she’s our candidate, she will have our full support here in Allegany County. We’ll have to see what develops and we’ll deal with whatever cards we’re dealt.”

What’s next for Democrats, Republicans in NY-23?

Sempolinski likened the redistricting process to a game of musical chairs. With fewer solid-Republican districts on New York’s map, each seat has become more valuable.

“What they’re doing is pushing more Republicans to challenge each other,” said Sara Lattin, chair of the Chemung County Republican Committee. “For Republicans, what matters is we’re representing the residents of New York, especially those who understand how important it is we have a balanced government.

“It’s a good problem to have qualified Republican candidates wanting to run. That is something that’s very important. If we’re going to have challengers for an office with qualified Republicans, I’d rather have that than be out there trying to find someone to run.”

[Story continues below NY-23 details]

While Tenney may be the early favorite to appear on the Republican ticket, the Democratic field is less settled. Broome County natives Josh Riley, a Democrat, and Hal Stewart, an Independent, previously announced intentions to challenge Tenney in NY-22, but that district was carved up when the congressional map was redrawn.

Shawn Hogan, chair of the Steuben County Democratic Committee, is skeptical that a candidate with minimal ties to the district can adequately represent its interests in Washington.

“(Tenney’s) going to have to become a quick study on the issues and what each county needs. I think she could be vulnerable if you get a good candidate who focuses on the issues that affect Southern Tier families,” said Hogan, who served 32 years as the mayor of the City of Hornell. “I think someone could run a good race.

“There’s talented people out there that actually care about making people’s lives better and improving the economic climate, and actually know where the Southern Tier is and what some of the issues are.”

Tenney lost a 2014 primary before being elected to the 22nd District seat in 2016. She was defeated by Democrat Anthony Brindisi in 2018, but narrowly won the rematch in 2020 by just over 100 votes.

Hogan and Leland both see an opening for the right Democratic candidate who can speak to local issues.

“It’s such a different political landscape than when Tom Reed was first elected, with the changes overall in the Republican Party and the split right now between those who are aligning themselves with the former president and those that are not,” said Leland.

“I think it’s going to be really anybody’s seat at this point. I think people are looking for somebody that is more concerned with local affairs than national politics. Things just got a whole lot more interesting.”

Chris Potter can be reached at cpotter@gannett.com or on Twitter @ChrisPotter413.