ALBANY — The congressional race for New York’s 19th seat could have been a nail-biter.
U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, a Rhinebeck Democrat, cruised into the seat with a narrow victory during the 2018 wave that also brought dozens of new Democratic House members. The district had been held by Republicans for 22 of the previous 26 years, and it went for President Donald J. Trump in 2016 by nearly 7 points. National Republicans have eyed the seat as a potential pickup opportunity, particularly after Delgado voted in favor of the impeachment of Trump.
But instead, Delgado has a comfortable cushion for reelection due to a Republican ticket in disarray, an electorate shifting to the left and a massive fundraising advantage. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report lists the contest — which also includes Green Party candidate Steve Greenfield and Libertarian Victoria Alexander — as a likely Democratic win.
Delgado has spent his first term with his head down, focusing his legislative efforts on agriculture, veterans, small businesses and rural broadband, siding with Democrats on most issues, including impeachment, while avoiding taking stances on other controversial topics. He’s worked over the past six months advocating for more pandemic relief, such as a new round of small business loans, saying in an interview it’s “ridiculous” that a deal for another federal coronavirus relief package has not been struck. He noted multiple pieces of legislation he authored were included in Democrats’ COVID-19 response proposals.
“What we’ve done from the very beginning is to connect with folks across the political spectrum to listen, whether it was through town halls or through my bipartisan, locally based advisory groups,” he said, “and taking that engagement on the ground and translating it into legislation.”
His challenger, Republican Kyle Van De Water, an attorney and veteran who has never held elected office, characterized Delgado and his policies as “far left” in their first debate Thursday night.
Last month, the Times Union caught up with Van De Water and a group of organizers at a Little League field in Saugerties, before they drove around town to pass out campaign literature. They parked their trucks between the empty soccer fields and an ongoing softball game.
In an interview in a tee-ball dugout, Van De Water said he likes “being the underdog.”
“I’m not nervous. I’m having fun,” he said. “He’s the one that’s nervous. Because he’s got everything to lose, and I’ve got everything to gain.”
Van De Water’s small-dollar, quiet campaign has paled next to Delgado’s cash-rich operation. As of Sept. 30, Van De Water had fundraised just over $50,000 this cycle, compared to Delgado’s $5.6 million raised during the same period, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Trump has not endorsed Van De Water.
And now Van De Water faces a new setback as Ola Hawatmeh, his Republican primary challenger from earlier this year, announced last week she is mounting a write-in bid for the seat, which could siphon desperately needed Republican votes away from Van De Water.
Hawatmeh’s decision to run a write-in campaign despite losing the June primary has revealed a fault line in the Republican Party within the district. One of her supporters accused the anti-Hawatmeh faction of being “racist idiots,” while a supporter of Van De Water’s told Hawatmeh to “take your money and stick it up your ass.” Meanwhile, the grassroots group of Republicans who support Hawatmeh appear to be violating federal law and regulations on independent election expenditures.
Van De Water is clearly running from behind in the race, and Delgado is determined to maintain his lead.
In his district, Delgado holds many constituent town halls and meetings, often preferring to take his message directly to the voter than through the press. In his first term, Delgado, like many other members of Congress, has often brushed past reporters at the Capitol asking him questions. For this story, the congressman’s staff at first offered only an off-the-record conversation with him, but then granted the Times Union a five-minute telephone interview to discuss his campaign.
After reporters for the newspaper pressed Delgado during that short interview about his arguable lack of accessibility, his chief of staff followed up and explained that there had been a miscommunication and made the congressman available for a lengthier second interview.
Delgado said he has “tried to be as open and transparent with the press from the very beginning.”
“I have learned over the course of my time in Congress that it is very important you are communicating in a way such that words cannot be taken out of context, misconstrued or exploited for whatever those purposes are,” he said. “It is not always the most desired approach for me to just make myself constantly open in a fashion that doesn’t always allow me to communicate with the constituents in the fashion that I think. When I’m able to do so, through town halls for example, I’m able to connect. I have nothing but respect for the press and the role you all play, but I’ve also learned over the course of my time that you have your agenda.”
The changing electorate of the 19th District favors Delgado. Between November 2018 and February, the district increased active Democratic voter registrations by 4 percent compared to no change in Republican registrations, New York Board of Elections data shows. That has resulted in over 14,000 more enrolled Democrats than Republicans.
The registrations are another challenge for the light footprint of the Van De Water campaign. He announced his campaign in February, not long before the pandemic struck. Van De Water said he decided to run once Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, a former 2018 gubernatorial candidate, announced he would not run for the seat. Van De Water had thought “it would be ridiculous for me to even try to compete with him.”
Molinaro lives in the district and had publicly flirted with a run. In a recent interview, he denied that Van De Water was a placeholder for a future Molinaro run in 2022, as some GOP sources opined, although he expressed a future interest in a higher office. He said Van De Water is working hard to win, but it isn’t going to be easy.
“I feel for anyone that is not an incumbent, because it’s just an environment that makes being a challenger more complicated,” Molinaro said. “I don’t think anyone, including Kyle, thinks this is easy. This is an uphill battle during an unprecedented time.”
From the outset, local GOP leaders didn’t have much confidence that either Van De Water or Hawatmeh could defeat Delgado, a member of the state GOP said. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect private conversations. The GOP leaders have also noticed that Van De Water has not been on the campaign trail much.
“Where we could have had a race against Delgado, a candidate just didn’t emerge,” the person said. “You just cannot go grab them by their collar. It didn’t happen in that district.”
When it came time to endorse early in the primary process, Republican county leaders thought Van De Water’s personality was a better fit for the district, although Hawatmeh came to the table with deeper pockets and connections to Trump’s family. When she refused to back out of the primary, local party chairs lashed out.
“Understand this you can take your money and stick it up your ass. You have done great harm by pursuing your personal agenda instead of choosing to be a team player,” Greene County GOP Chairman Brent Bogardus texted Hawatmeh in April, according to a screenshot obtained by the Times Union. “I personally could give a flying rats ass if you win this primary that you forced … you will never receive any support from me.”
Van De Water won the primary over Hawatmeh after a surge of absentee ballots pushed him ahead of Hawatmeh’s stronger performance at the polls. Hawatmeh, a philanthropist, fashion designer and first time candidate, has refused to concede the race and initially ceased campaigning.
A group of more than 200 Republicans who named themselves “the Old Guard” have also refused to let Hawatmeh’s candidacy drop. They have praised her candidacy and alleged ballot fraud and other wrongdoing in Hawatmeh’s primary loss. There has been no official investigation identifying any election fraud in the primary.
“Watching what they did to her, from calling her a Muslim to saying we’ll never vote for a Middle Easterner, my own party showed me that in many ways the Democrats were right: They’re a bunch of racist idiots,” said Bryan LoRusso, a Republican in Otsego County who is part of the Old Guard group. “It was upsetting.”
LoRusso and the Old Guard started fundraising over the summer to pay for palm cards, signs, billboards and pens telling NY-19 voters to write in Hawatmeh’s name for the seat. The group recently paid $1,500 for a radio advertisement advocating for a Hawatmeh write-in campaign that will run in Ulster and Sullivan counties through Oct. 26, LoRusso said.
As of Wednesday, the group had not made any filings to the Federal Election Commission, although federal law and campaign regulations require disclosures of groups and individuals spending to boost or oppose a federal candidate. LoRusso, who is a Department of Defense security contractor, said he was unaware of federal laws governing independent expenditures and electioneering communications.
“We don’t have any guidance,” LoRusso said. “We are just a group of people who are pissed and are doing what we can.”
The actions of the Old Guard persuaded Hawatmeh to formally announce last week she would relaunch her campaign as a write-in candidate.
Fox News personality Sean Hannity, who Hawatmeh called a friend, weighed in Thursday on Twitter: “The way NY CD 19 has been handled is an absolute disgrace. I hope people are aware of the #writeinolahawatmeh option. This is why I am a registered conservative in NY.”
Other local Republicans said the write-in campaign is a bad idea. Molinaro described it as “not productive.” Assemblyman Christopher Tague, R-Schoharie, said it “will surely hurt her in the future in the district with the different county committees.”
Hawatmeh called her support “a movement.” She said Republicans have threatened that the write-in bid will destroy her future political career, but she refuses to back down.