November 7, 2018

WU | How the Next ‘Extreme Ithaca Liberal’ Can Beat Tom Reed

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Some cities are notable for towering skyscrapers, others for offbeat museums or bucolic beauty. But to Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who represents New York’s 23rd congressional district (including Cornell), Ithaca represents little more than a bastion of lefty extremism. And likewise, Tracy Mitrano, who lost to Reed in yesterday’s midterm election, is little more than an Ithaca outgrowth.

In expressing this view, Reed does not pull punches. Look no further than his own campaign ads. “Extreme Ithaca Liberal Tracy Mitrano is lying to conceal her positions,” fumed a recent one. Broadcast in the final days of the midterm, this was the essence of Reed’s argument to voters: Mitrano, like all Ithaca liberals, is just far too extreme.

Mitrano’s decisive defeat shows this reactive argument still holds sway with N.Y.-23 voters. It has in the past, too. The “Extreme Ithaca Liberal” trope was pioneered in 2014 against Democrat Martha Robertson, and then again against Democrat John Plumb in 2016. And like Mitrano, Reed dispatched with both Democrats with relative ease.

Still, Reed’s repeated success suggests the need for a new Democratic approach in this conservative-leaning district. Any aspiring Democrat hoping to unseat Reed must tack to the center. They must eschew left-wing policies like Medicare for All. They must be moderate on pocketbook issues, such as fracking. And above all, they must learn to evade on abortion.

Start with Mitrano’s biggest mistake. To survive a cut-throat Democratic primary, Mitrano took up the banner of Medicare for All, a poorly defined slogan for single-payer health care trumpeted by Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

This was a mistake. It handed Reed a potent cudgel against Mitrano. In each of their three debates, as well as in his ads, Reed hammered Mitrano on health care: “When my opponent wants to embrace government-run health care that is going to cost $32 trillion, that’s going to double your taxes.”

He has a point. Medicare for All amounts to nationalizing the health insurance system, which would necessarily require a stiff tax hike. Set aside whether that is worthwhile (in my view, it is not). Running on higher taxes is politically noxious. Conservative voters and right-leaning independents — whom any N.Y.-23 candidate must sway to win — tend to believe that taxes are confiscatory. Prospective Democratic candidates would do well to take notice of that.

Mitrano erred in her opposition to hydraulic fracturing — in particular, her support of a New York moratorium on fracking. Fracking has its hazards, and should be regulated as such. But New York’s bountiful reserves of untapped shale energy hold real economic promise for the state.

Reinstating fracking would lower energy costs for New Yorkers, which would largely benefit the poor and middle class. And that is what makes Mitrano’s anti-fracking stance difficult to justify to voters. In political terms, foggy environmental risks do not entice voters like fatter wallets do. A savvier approach would be to oppose the fracking ban while acknowledging the need for prudent environmental safeguards.

Lastly, Mitrano missed on abortion. Though polling is sparse, the partisan tilt of the district suggests most of its voters oppose abortion in some form. And if the midterm is any indication, her wishy-washy views — against restricting it, but “not a super-enthusiast about” it — were not received well by N.Y.-23 voters.

To perform better, Democrats running in conservative districts should become more comfortable fudging the issue. That’s exactly what Conor Lamb (D-Penn.) did in his special election victory earlier this year. Lamb positioned himself as an ardent Catholic who personally opposed abortion, but did not favor additional abortion curbs. This lets Democratic candidates parry attacks that they want on-demand abortion. But it is also a position hospitable to pro-choice and women’s groups, on whom Democrats rely for funding

Yet for all Mitrano’s slip-ups, she also offers lessons for budding Democratic contenders. Her substantive stances on cybersecurity — about which she is a genuine expert — were both refreshing and compelling. Her emphasis on infrastructure, support for rural broadband expansion, and robust backing of the Second Amendment are all political winners. Near the end of the campaign, she made the politically keen decision to hit Reed on his faux bipartisanship. These approaches bolstered Mitrano’s self-avowed centrism. They are worth emulating again.

It is a shame Reed held the seat. The country and the district would have been better off with Mitrano. As I wrote in August, Reed’s deeply misguided support for tariffs and false concern for the national debt deserves to be repudiated. Mitrano was not able to pull it off. But maybe another candidate, one who learns the lessons of Mitrano’s defeat, can.

Ethan Wu is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Discourse and Discord runs every other Tuesday this semester. He can be reached at ewu@cornellsun.com.