National News

Rep. Tenney’s Fervor for Trump Invites Ridicule, but Not From GOP Base

Posted May 10, 2018 8:03 p.m. EDT
Updated May 10, 2018 8:13 p.m. EDT

JORDANVILLE, N.Y. — The message last month sounded as if it came directly from a Donald Trump campaign speech, with references to draining the swamp and calls for the prosecution of Hillary Clinton and James B. Comey, among others.

Then, in case those Trump-cloaked allusions somehow eluded any of Rep. Claudia Tenney’s followers, she asked them to sign a petition called “Lock Them Up.”

Tenney, a first-term Republican congresswoman from central New York, has remained an unabashed supporter of Trump, even as his unpopularity in his home state is expected to drive Democrats to the polls in November’s midterm elections.

She has criticized her Democratic colleagues for being “un-American” for not applauding the president during his State of the Union address in January, suggesting that they “don’t love our country.”

And she has managed to exceed Trump in her criticism of those who would restrict gun rights, positing that “so many of these people that commit the mass murders end up being Democrats.”

Her comments have ricocheted across social media and national news outlets and even landed in a Jimmy Kimmel monologue. National Democrats have sought to capitalize on her rhetoric as out of touch, even zany.

But as Tenney faces her first re-election bid, opposed by Anthony Brindisi, a Democratic assemblyman, state Republican leaders say that her views are aligned with a majority of her district. And they may be right.

“I don’t know if she regrets some of the things she says,” said Laurie Crockett, manager of the one-room Jordanville Public Library about 20 miles southeast of Utica. “But I do know that she’s tenacious and speaks her mind about things that she believes in, and I think people around here appreciate that.”

While New York as a whole is a reliably blue state on the national political map, the 22nd Congressional District is anything but. Stretching from Lake Ontario south to the Pennsylvania border, the district takes in the fertile Mohawk Valley with its dairy and vegetable farms, as well as postindustrial cities like Utica and Binghamton.

The sprawling district is as Republican as any in the state, with registered Republicans outnumbering registered Democrats by some 30,000. But political observers say the district skews to the center of the political spectrum, citing moderate Republicans who have held the House seat in the past.

Yet interviews with more than a dozen voters revealed that Tenney’s red-meat conservatism — and stance on issues ranging from gun rights to tax cuts to small government — are resonating in the age of Trump.

Even her most contentious remark about the Democratic leanings of mass shooters earned high marks from some Republicans. (The nonpartisan PolitiFact rated the claim a “Pants on Fire” fabrication.)

“My opinion is that if that’s the truth, then God bless her for saying it,” said Grant Becker, the 30-year-old son of a dairy farmer who works in a machine shop in Little Falls. “If it’s not true, then she shouldn’t have, but I believe it’s true and I support her 100 percent.”

Tenney, 57, is a lawyer and former state assemblywoman who lives in New Hartford, a suburb of Utica. One Republican strategist described her as “Trump before Trump.”

But if Democrats were hoping that Tenney’s inflammatory remarks — mostly made in local radio interviews — would turn the tide toward Brindisi, they may be disappointed. All eight of the Republican county committees that span the 22nd House district have endorsed her re-election campaign. From midsized cities like Utica to rural hamlets, many Republicans defended her comments as refreshing, while others said they were irrelevant, arguing that they were in line with today’s overheated political discourse.

“I’m not bothered at all, for the simple fact that it’s all partisan,” said Dan Sudakow, a 50-year-old bricklayer from North Columbia. “Democrats call every Republican a racist or bigot. It’s just politics.”

Even some Republicans who concede that Tenney’s remarks may have crossed a line said they would nonetheless vote for her in November. “She’s put her foot in her mouth, but I’m still going to support her because she’s a true conservative,” said Dwayne Parker, 48, a printer for a local newspaper.

Like many Republican voters, Parker said he worried that Democrats were chipping away at the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms. Though he does not own a gun, he is a member of the NRA and believes Tenney will do more to protect gun rights than Brindisi.

Still, Parker called Tenney’s assertion about the political orientation of mass murderers a “stupid remark,” adding that he doubted the gunmen knew “the difference between a Republican and a Democrat.”

Two of her Republican predecessors in Congress also repudiated the comments about mass shooters, which were made after the high school massacre in Parkland, Florida. Sherwood Boehlert, who represented the district from 1983 to 2007, called the remarks “completely inappropriate and insensitive.”

Richard L. Hanna, a Republican who served in Congress from 2011 to 2017, was more pointed, saying, “Claudia traffics in soft bigotry, hate and fear.” He added that her observations were “among the most insensitive comments I’ve ever heard on an issue that’s so raw.”

Tenney, who waged an unsuccessful primary challenge against Hanna in 2014, went on to win the open seat in 2016 after he decided not to run for re-election. She declined to be interviewed for this article, but her campaign manager, Raychel Renna, defended Tenney’s freewheeling opinions.

“Claudia Tenney will always stand up for law-abiding gun owners,” Renna said when asked about the mass-shooter observation.

“Claudia is no stranger to vicious smear campaigns and her words being taken out of context by Washington liberals and the media,” she added. “Despite their malicious, false attacks, Claudia beat them in 2016 while being outspent by millions and she’ll beat them again.”

Brindisi is expected to appeal to some conservative voters, given his A rating from the NRA and his record of butting heads with his party’s leadership in Albany.

The candidates are similarly matched in campaign dollars, too, with Tenney pulling in $1.4 million in receipts and Brindisi $1.2 million.

Some Republican voters in the district said that, like Trump, Tenney should be judged on her record, not her words. They praised her votes in support of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, as well as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, Trump’s signature legislative achievement. Mostly, they say, Tenney shared their philosophy of limited government and championed the rollback of regulations. “People in this area like autonomy,” explained Crockett, a self-described libertarian and mother of three who moved here from Manhattan after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

“There’s no zoning in this town, as you can see, and we like it that way,” she added. “Our neighbors’ chickens and pigs run across our yards and eat our bugs, but then they give us their maple syrup.”

Other conservative voters suspect that Tenney’s pronouncements were more calculated than off-the-cuff, intended to give her national exposure. Jeff Smith, a property manager in Frankfort, voted for Tenney in 2016 and plans to vote for her again. “She has learned how to grab headlines,” Smith said. “Any publicity is good publicity.”

Instead of being turned off by utterances that have morphed into punch lines on late-night television, Smith welcomes them. “I like a little disruption in the political world,” he said.