The New York Times
May 17th, 2011
People in western New York used to roll their eyes when the name Jack Davis came up.
Mr. Davis, a wealthy industrialist, spent over $5 million of his own money on failed efforts to win a seat in Congress. He once said, after a congressman sent sexually suggestive messages to young pages, that he would have used a bat on anyone who had done the same thing to one of his sons. He also predicted that states with large numbers of Mexican immigrants would secede and start a second Civil War.
But these days, few are writing off Mr. Davis.
A special election fight over a House of Representatives seat, which has attracted big money and huge interest from both parties, now appears to hinge on him. Running as a Tea Party candidate, Mr. Davis, 78, is siphoning support from the Republican candidate — so much so that Republicans privately concede that if they do not stop him, they could hand a seat they have long held to the Democrats.
With a week remaining in the race, Republican heavyweights like House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and conservative organizations, including one with ties to Karl Rove, are questioning Mr. Davis’s conservative credentials in television advertisements, news conferences and elsewhere.
Mr. Davis’s ascension comes as a race that had once seemed a certain Republican victory has become fiercely competitive because of a House Republican plan that calls for overhauling Medicare.
The election, in the 26th Congressional District, which runs between Rochester and Buffalo, is to fill a seat vacated by a Republican.
Mr. Boehner took a veiled swipe at Mr. Davis during a visit to western New York to campaign with the Republican candidate, Jane Corwin. Then, several national conservative organizations began directing attacks at Mr. Davis, who has switched parties multiple times.
In recent days, national and local Republican operatives have circulated a video that they claim shows Mr. Davis assaulting a young Republican volunteer who tracked him with a camera — an accusation the Davis camp says is untrue and a smear attempt.
Mr. Davis says Republicans are obviously out to get him.
“They’re coming after me like I’m really the No. 1 issue to their winning the election,” he said after a rally in Varysburg. “They thought this would be a coronation. And I’ve changed their plans, and they don’t like it.”
For the new Republican majority in Congress, the stakes in the race are significant.
Ms. Corwin’s advantage vanished after her Democratic rival, Kathy Hochul, used the Republican Medicare proposal to energize her once long-shot campaign.
Ms. Hochul has repeatedly criticized the plan as dangerous for retirees, an important voting bloc, and has called on Ms. Corwin to denounce it. But Ms. Corwin has refused to budge, which may go over well with conservatives.
The shifting dynamics of the race have caused an about-face among top Democrats. After hesitating to spend much money supporting Ms. Hochul in a district where Republicans far outnumber Democrats, party leaders are now making the contest a preview of next year’s battle for the House by turning it into a referendum on the Republican agenda.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently unveiled a television campaign focused on older residents of the district, where a majority of registered voters are 45 or older. It portrays Ms. Corwin and Mr. Davis as having similar views.
But while Medicare has proven to be a powerful issue, independent analysts and strategists from both parties say Mr. Davis’s candidacy has become a threat to Ms. Corwin and may tip the balance to Ms. Hochul.
“It is clear to me that he is a spoiler and not headed to victory in this race,” said Thomas M. Reynolds, a former Republican congressman from the district who was a strategist for the national party. (Mr. Davis is also drawing voters away from Ms. Hochul, but pollsters and other experts say his impact on the Democrat is less damaging.)
Mr. Davis, who has spent $2.2 million on his campaign, grew up in western New York. In 1964, he started a company, I Squared R Element Company, which manufactures heating elements for electric furnaces. It made a fortune for Mr. Davis, who is married, with 6 children and 13 grandchildren.
It is difficult to attach a political label to Mr. Davis, whose views combine economic populism (he abhors free trade) with libertarianism (he supports both gun rights and abortion rights).
Mr. Davis started off as a Republican in the mold of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. But he left the party in 2004, largely because he felt it did not share his concerns over multinational corporations benefiting from trade policies that hurt American workers.
He became a Democrat that year and spent $1.4 million in an unsuccessful effort to unseat Mr. Reynolds. Two years later, he poured $2.4 million into another failed campaign to defeat Mr. Reynolds. After Mr. Reynolds retired in 2008, Mr. Davis ran for Congress again, spending $1.7 million in a losing bid for the Democratic nomination. Christopher Lee, a Republican businessman, won the seat.
The seat became vacant in February when Mr. Lee resigned after he e-mailed a woman a shirtless photo of himself and it appeared on the Internet. Mr. Davis entered the race, seeking the Republican nomination, as Democratic leaders got behind Ms. Hochul, the Erie County clerk. But after failing to secure the Republican bid, Mr. Davis gathered enough signatures to run on the Tea Party line.
Over the weekend, the excitement over his candidacy was evident at a banquet hall where he drew applause during a speech in which he denounced free trade, spoke of reversing America’s manufacturing decline, pledged to take a $1 annual salary in Congress and promised to bequeath his company to his 75 employees.
“Let me tell you why I am running for Congress,” he told the crowd. “I love America.”
In trying to blunt Mr. Davis’s rise, Republicans have sought to raise doubts about his conservative credentials.
American Crossroads has unveiled a television campaign calling him a “millionaire career candidate” who is “pretending to be conservative.”
But some Republican voters do not seem inclined to be swayed.
Mary Ann Reisdorf, 70, of Varysburg, attended the Davis rally and left with a more favorable opinion of him than of Ms. Corwin, the Republican.
“Jack is a lot more forthright, I think, and I like that,” Ms. Reisdorf said.
Clayton Ehrenreich, 53, a Republican and the former mayor of the village of Medina, had a similar view.
“Davis is somebody different than the status quo in Washington,” Mr. Ehrenreich said. “He’s not controlled by either party.”
Michael D. Regan contributed reporting from Varysburg, N.Y.
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