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Democrats Focus On Rural New York To Retake The U.S. House

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Democrats feel like they have a pretty good chance of winning the White House and the Senate. The House is a different story. But Democrats have been trying. One example - they've been targeting vulnerable-seeming Republican seats in New York, where Hillary Clinton has a strong lead over Donald Trump in the polls. But as North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, Trump has not turned out to be the game changer Democrats had hoped for.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Volunteer with the Democratic Party, helping to elect...

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: In a strip mall on the outskirts of Binghamton, N.Y., 20 men and women huddle over computers, making phone calls, talking up Democrat Kim Myers. Some heavy hitters dropped by to show support - a sign of just how important this race is.

CAROLYN MALONEY: So we could really be the majority maker - the absolute majority maker in the United States Congress.

MANN: That's Carolyn Maloney, a Democratic congresswoman who's traveled upstate from the East Side of Manhattan. The head of EMILY's List is also here. That's one of the most influential political action committees in the country backing pro-choice women.

But the Democratic candidate in the 22nd District, Kim Myers, is caught in a bruising election fight for a seat left open this year when the Republican congressman retired. She says Donald Trump has turned out to be a complicated factor in House districts with a lot of small-town voters.

KIM MYERS: People are hurting. People are angry. And they're frustrated. And so they are buying some of what Trump is selling.

MANN: To retake control of the House, Democrats need at least 30 seats nationwide. Races like this one in New York seem like the perfect place to lay the foundation for a surge. It's a deep-blue state. There were two Republican congressmen retiring this year.

And three other Republican freshmen looked vulnerable. But David Wasserman, who covers the house for the Cook Political Report, says Democratic hopes have faded.

DAVID WASSERMAN: If Democrats want to take back the House, there's no doubt they need a big gain in upstate New York. And yet, at this point, it looks unlikely they'll score one.

MANN: The problem is that a lot of these upstate New York districts look like rural Ohio or even Iowa, places where Donald Trump's support is holding up. The population is mostly white. It's older and tilts Republican.

Wasserman says Hillary Clinton also has baggage here. When she was New York's U.S. senator, she promised to help revive this part of New York.

WASSERMAN: A lot of upstate is still struggling economically. So there is a unique antipathy to Hillary Clinton's candidacy for president.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing in foreign language).

MANN: This is Utica, a faded factory town a couple hours north of Binghamton, still in the same sprawling house district. At a Ukrainian festival in the Catholic Church, women in embroidered white shirts play guitar and dance across the stage while people eat plates of pierogies and sausage. People here don't see Donald Trump as a drag on Republicans - just the opposite. They like him.

CHRIS SALO: (Chanting) Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.

MANN: Chris Salo goes to church here. He says Donald Trump offers exactly the kind of big change needed in Rust-Belt towns like Utica. He's not bothered a bit by all the scandal and talk of sexual impropriety.

SALO: The things he's done - any crazy rich man or whatever. But he has a brain. And he's very smart and a good businessman.

MANN: Salo also plans to support Claudia Tenney, the conservative Republican running for Congress in the 22nd District. The race looks pretty much like a dead heat. It could go either way. There is one other New York race in the Hudson River Valley where Democrats still have a shot at flipping a Republican seat.

If there's a single factor - a kind of firewall preventing Democrats from surging and possibly retaking the House nationwide - it may be these rural towns and small Rust-Belt cities where support for Donald Trump seems strong.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in upstate New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.