The Amazing Political History of NY-23

(Truly tremendous work. From the diaries with minor edits – promoted by DavidNYC)

I love political geography and political history. So, something seemed out of line when I recently read diaries on several sites regarding the soon-to-be vacancy of New York’s 23rd Congressional District, made possible by the appointment of John McHugh to become Secretary of the Army. Several diaries mentioned that the district hasn’t been represented by a Democrat in a quarter-century or so. Perhaps parts of the district haven’t elected a Democrat in 25 or so years, but it seemed to me that most of the district hasn’t been Democratic-held since much earlier times. I decided to do a little research.

It turns out that NY-23 is a true political anomaly. It is one of only two remaining districts in the United States where at least part of the district has not been represented by a Democrat since 1852 (the other is Pennsylvania’s 16th District, which includes Lancaster County, most of which has not been represented by a Democrat since 1830. Tennessee’s 2nd District last elected a Democrat in 1852. There no longer are any comparable Democratic-held districts; all have gone Republican at least once since 1850, although a few in Texas held out until the DeLay redistricting of 2004.)

If Democrats win NY-23 in a special election to be held later this year, certain parts of this district will be represented by a Democrat for the first time in 159 years. The map below gives you an idea of how long it’s been since parts of the district have been Democratic-held. Almost two-thirds of the population of the current district (62%) live in territory that has not elected a Democrat since 1890 or earlier. It really is mind-boggling. (For those political geeks interested in more history about this district, I provide additional information below the map.)

Perhaps what got a few commentators confused regarding this district in diaries I read (other than often-confusing district numbering) was the fact that the district has only been around in its present “single-district” form since the 1940’s. Since that time, it has always included Jefferson, St. Lawrence, and Franklin Counties, as well as Lewis Co. (except for 1971-73), and Oswego Co. (except for 1945-53 and 1983-93). Clinton Co. and most of Essex Co. have also been part of the district since 1969 and 1971, respectively. The other, more peripheral counties have been part of this district only briefly over the last 60 or so years. Between 1883 and 1943, there were basically two districts here – a “western” one, encompassing Jefferson, Oswego, Lewis, and Madison, and an “eastern” one, encompassing St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton, and Essex – although during one period of time, redistricting created three districts centered in what is now NY-23. Prior to 1883, what is now NY-23 was part of four or more different districts.

Since the 1856 election (when the Republican party entered the political arena), the territory in what is now NY-23 has almost exclusively been represented by the GOP. In fact, the last Democrat elected to represent St. Lawrence Co. in Congress was a man named Francis Spinner, elected in 1854. He ran successfully for re-election as a Republican in 1856 and was later appointed as Treasurer of the United States by Abraham Lincoln. The last Democrat to represent Jefferson Co. was even earlier – Willard Ives, elected in 1850. The most amazing fact I found was regarding Franklin Co. The last Democrat elected to represent that county was Joseph Russell, also in 1850. In 1852, the district that then included Franklin elected George Simmons, a member of the Whig party. Therefore, Franklin Co. has been more recently represented in Congress by a WHIG (1854) than by a Democrat (1852)!

I wasn’t going to go into the current political situation in NY-23 at all in this diary, but one fact caught my eye while researching the info here. It is interesting that Darrrell Aubertine (who represents Oswego, Jefferson and part of St. Lawrence in the State Senate – equivalent to approximately 45% of the population of NY-23) is the first Democrat elected to his State Senate seat since 1880. (By the way, no other State Senator represents as high a percentage of NY-23 as Aubertine; GOP Senator Joe Griffo represents about 15% and doesn’t even live in NY-23; while GOP Senator Betty Little represents about 25% and also doesn’t live in the congressional district; two others represent the remainder.) Aubertine would certainly make a formidable candidate for us. However, I also understand the need to keep the State Senate in Democratic hands. NY-23 voted for Obama by 52-47, so this election will be competitive. Hopefully, we will find a good candidate and make him or her the first Democrat elected to Congress here in a long, long time.

Sources for information:

68 thoughts on “The Amazing Political History of NY-23”

  1. Isn’t Pat Leahy the only Democratic Senator it’s ever had? Has a Democrat ever held Sanders’s seat? My guess is no.  

  2. corresponding to Atlanta hasn’t elected a Republican since Reconstruction. Of course, the Democrats it used to elect were nothing like John Lewis. . .

  3. the 19th century parts are more liberal than the 20th century parts. I seem to recall the 3 northern counties have been strongly Democratic in the past several presidential elections.

  4. Does anyone know if there’s a county/district with one party rule longer than Franklin/Jefferson?  Knox County, Tennessee is 1855.  Some parts of Republican pro-Unionist Kentucky, maybe?

  5. confused why David and others keep suggesting this district to be eliminated; its just odd. The southern tier has lost much more population and eliminating Christopher Lee’s district makes so much more sense all around. Why mess with NY-23? Its a good thing, moving further towards Democrats, Aubertine’s election is really strengthening and organizing them there, and yes, I think he would be a great candidate and should run, a house seat is more important. The GOP machine is broken, period. They can’t hold on to the house in 2010 even if they take Aubertine’s seat, too many vulnerable seats and, I believe they took one Democratic seat due to scandal that Democrats should win back.

  6. I absolutely loved this post.  By all means, keep up the good work!  Incidentally, how in the world did you get such clean, visually pleasing maps on a topic as obscure as congressional apportionment?

  7.   Yes, Leahy is the first Democrat elected to the Senate from VT, but a Democrat was actually elected to the House seat in 1958.

  8. didn’t clearly correspond to Dem/GOP performance until very, very recently. The Northeast has been the nation’s most “liberal” region for a very, very long time, but while its ethnic Catholic/urban areas (NYC, Philadelphia, parts of New Jersey, Boston) started voting Democratic as early as the Progressive Era (NYC actually voted for Douglas in 1860, when the entire North was a bloc for Lincoln), New England (and especially the three northern New England states) had scarcely warmed to Democrats as late as the 1960s. And the Democrats have been defined as the more “liberal” party (at least regarding foreign policy) since Woodrow Wilson at least, and have been the more economically progressive/demand-side party since the 1920s.

    As for this diary, I wish I could rec it because I adore a good history lesson. History is definitely on the GOP’s side in NY-23, but like the rest of upstate New York, the Democrats have a decent shot just based on recent trends. Since I don’t want to risk control of the State Senate, I wonder if there’s a strong candidate up there. (Of course, Scott Murphy had no elected experience.)

  9. That’s shocking. Atlanta’s one of the few places in the South that’s been voting Democratic forever and is continuing to do so in even stronger numbers.

    (As an aside, arguably the frontrunner right now for Mayor of Atlanta is a white Republican…for about 35 years, Atlanta’s mayor has always been a black Democrat. That would be weird, to say the least, though I doubt it bodes ill for future Georgia Dems since mayoral elections are nonpartisan.)

  10. has long been the most liberal place in California, and was a very crimson shade of red a century ago. Now it’s hard to imagine this area used to be so strongly Republican!

  11. machine city. I don’t know when the first post-civil war Republican Congressman was, but it was probably not until FDR, if not the 50s.

  12. I tend to disagree that New York has been so liberal for so long. If New York wasn’t actually conservative until some way through the 20th century, the picture is at least more complex than one of overwhelming liberalism. Historically, there was a New York-Virginia axis, and I read somewhere that New York profited from the slave trade, though slavery was illegalized in New York in the 18th century. I think that New York’s liberalism is relatively recent. Even if you think about a terrifically popular Democratic senator like Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who I liked very much): He served in the Nixon Administration and had some comparatively conservative leanings (though one could easily make the rejoinder that Republican Senator Javits was pretty liberal). New York City also has had a complex history, with reformers having to run as Republicans against conservative, corrupt Democratic machines.

    Another point about the the way the parties have flipped, though, is that if the Democratic Party were still the party of slavery and segregation and the Republican Party were still the party of liberation and integration, I would undoubtedly be a strongly partisan Republican today, as I would hope everyone here would be.

  13. I believe that until the 1970’s the most GOP areas in the state were along the coast, while inland CA was more Democratic … how things change !

  14. …counties like Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton, and DeKalb as well as cities like Augusta, Columbus, and Savannah, were all pretty Republican.  Now, all by Cobb and Gwinnett have become Democratic, and Cobb and Gwinnett are trending our way.  

  15. Before Lyndon Johnson, the only “Democrat” ever to win Vermont’s popular vote for President was John Quincy Adams.  Adams, I would aegue was something of a Federalist at least as much as he was a Democrat.  Rather than voting for Andrew Jackson, the state voted for the Anti-Masonic candidate.  In 1936, Vermont was one of only two states to vote Republican (with Utah).  Any district that is less Democratic than Vermont (historically) is pretty Republican.

  16. You are right about Philly.

    Joe Clark broke the stranglehold by being elected city Controller in 1949 and Mayor in 1952.  Clark was elected to two full terms in the US Senate and was the last Democrat in PA elected to a full US Senate term until Bob Casey.  Specter’s conversion in the 1960s gives ample testimony to the power of the Republicans in Philadelphia in the 1960s.

  17. in 1936, the two states were Vermont and Maine. But in 1912, the only two states to vote Republican were Vermont and Utah. That only strengthens your case!

  18. DeKalb County voted for Nixon, in a landslide. ROFLMAO

    And here’s the real punchline: Clayton went for Wallace, also by a large margin!

    (Fulton, of course, stayed tried and true for Humphrey, but not by a fantastic spread.)

  19. but if we use Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt as standards of modern Republicanism we are sure to get confused (and depressed). T.R., of course, lived long enough to jump ship; he saw where they were heading back in 1912!

  20. As you have those who are economically progressive/socially conservative and those who are economically conservative and socially liberal. And some who are pure centrists all around. And, during WWI, WWII and the Cold War foreign policy was a bigger deal than today. With some hawkish, some dovish, some more in the middle.  

  21. Both Georgia and Arkansas went for Truman and Wallace. I’ve never understood that.  

  22. There are some major parties even in the rest of the western world that had a long, gradual ideological makeover. Some even not so long.

  23. T.R. was an independent-minded reformist. He had to run as a Republican in New York against Tammany Hall, for that reason, and he became very popular nationally because of his incorruptibility and fearlessness. The Republican Party nominated him as Vice President in order to hide him. That turned out to be a stupid strategy. But when he “jumped ship,” he formed his own independent party, the Bull Moose Party, and certainly did not join the segregationist Democrats of his day. And sadly, it’s because he divided what otherwise might well have been Republican votes that the horrific racist and arch-segregationist, Woodrow Wilson, won election.

    Your main point, though, goes without saying. Lincoln has been spinning in his grave for years if he’s been paying attention to the recent depredations of the Republican Party from some heavenly viewpoint, and the clincher is the calls for secession from Republican quarters, which frankly have shocked me.

  24. still (mostly) existed in 1948. Even if there was anger over the desegregation platform at the DNC, almost everyone in the South still considered themselves lifelong Democrats and had no interest in what the GOP had to say. FDR, to his credit, managed to bridge the gap brilliantly between the liberal, urban culture of the North and the more conservative leanings of the South. There were a number of times he faced a Dixie revolt (especially over court-packing and, later, Eleanor’s outspoken views about desegregation), but he somehow managed to advance liberal causes and still keep the South in his pocket.

    Until Eisenhower, I guess, most southerners still had limited exposure (and a one-dimensional view) of the GOP. Even then, they only warmed up to Eisenhower while rejecting downballot GOP candidates without fail. Nixon was the first to really crack the South, and he had considerable help (anti-Catholic bigotry in 1960, Wallace in 1968).

  25. but Obama is the first candidate I know of (who didn’t win a gargantuan landslide) to hold the entire Lincoln band stretching from Minnesota and Iowa to New England. Like Lincoln, he also came just short in “bellwether” Missouri.

    Are we looking at a new “Solid North” 10-15 years from now (including places like Indiana and Ohio, even)?

  26. At least in its official platform. As it has a centrist platform while historically it was pretty progressive.

  27. considering the Republican Party would have been months old at that point. Now that the GOP’s several founding homes in the Upper Midwest have all gone Democratic, it may be more realistic to call East Tennessee the birthplace of the Republican Party.

    (And the Democrats can pretty much call Virginia their original home, since Jefferson’s Virginia Mafia of utilitarians/classical liberals morphed into the Democrats within 25 years.)

  28. If I’m not mistaken, DuPage county, Illinois, never voted for a Democrat after 1852; but Obama carried it easily last year. Carroll County, New Hampshire, has a similar story.  

  29. unfair rap, his views were quite standard for the time period, and we cannot judge Presidents by our modern sensibilities otherwise people would see Lincoln as, in many ways, a terrible racist.

    In policy measurements and vision measurements Wilson comes out as one of the greatest U.S. Presidents. In fact I’m still beside myself when I see how many of Wilson’s ideas predated modern diplomacy and how, had other people been less small minded and been willing to listen to him, WWII would never have happened. Between Vietnam and WWII the Cabot family has caused America more blood and suffering than any other, (a note merely, Henry Cabot Sr. led the charge against Wilson’s proposals, and Jr. was a strong proponent of the war and had Ngo Diem assasainated, fracturing the unified South Vietnamese resistance, and shattering the South Vietnam Republics credibility, leading to the intensification of the conflict).

    Wilson was a very intelligent man and made many important contributions to progressive improvement of government and the regulating of labor and corporations. I think you are being far too harsh on him and its truly unfortunate and unfair.

  30. The part that’s usually left out in grade school social studies is that he was a hardened racist. Did you know that he segregated the civil service?  

  31. On the one hand, he was absolutely, disgustingly racist.

    On the other hand, he had a vision for world peace and self-determination that, I think, still holds as a viable model, with tweaks.

    On the third hand, he applied that vision unevenly, and self-determination never did apply to some parts of the world. For instance, if he had met with Ho Chi Minh at Versailles and incorporated Asia into his vision, a lot of things might have been different. If he and the other western leaders had taken the Japanese and the Chinese seriously at Versailles, the conflict in East Asia would have developed very differently. And a lot of that probably ties back into racism.

    And on top of all of that, Wilson was just a bad politician. He’s as much to blame for the failure of the treaty and the League as the Republicans.

    I feel like, intellectually, Wilson made an enormous contribution. But what always held him back were personal, irrational, emotional prejudices. He could have been a truly great president. Instead, he’s a visionary who couldn’t properly execute his ideas.

  32. President Wilson was not merely a man with garden-variety prejudices of the type that President Lincoln had in his day; he was an active segregator and supporter of the KKK, who presided on the worst period of lynchings in American history without one word of criticism for them. I would rather support the Republicans and anti-racists of those dark days than try to soft-pedal Wilson’s violent bigotry on the basis that there were many other bigots. Wilson’s views and actions were abhorrent and by no means universal for his day, and continued to have ill effects long after his death.

    I will agree with you that bigotry was not the only legacy of Wilson’s Presidency, but I don’t think I was being unfair by focusing on it. Nor do I believe one can judge a neo-Confederate supporter of the KKK to be one of the greatest presidents. His bigotry is too big a black mark, even if you think he was right to send Americans to their deaths in WWI.

  33. A few of the early ones were Whig Congresscritters who didn’t have the full Republican backing since the Party was too new.  Nonetheless, even though they labelled themselves as the Opposition Party, most sought support from and, after a while, became Republicans.

  34. I just realized, you could read my post as suggesting that I think you supported WWI. I don’t know your views; that was directed at a generic “you.”

  35. the matter of, “Aubertine shouldn’t run for the district and risk losing hte State Senate when the district is probably going to get eliminated anyway.”

    Maybe I should have been clearer. What I meant ot say is that I am confused when people seem to assume this seat is the one to get eliminated.

  36. you arre right, Wilson was the conflicted visionary, on one hand one of the most intelligent far seeing President’s we’ve had, on the other a bad politician, (but mostly stemming from his refusal to play backroom politics, commonplace at the time), and was definitely held back by some strong prejuidices.

  37. I think Wilson was afraid to lose southern political machines.

    But yes, I do support the U.S.’s entry into WWI, quite strongly, even if, in the end, it was all for nought as Wilson proved inable to handle the subtle nuances and dickering that comes with diplomacy and the better part of possible improvements did not occur.

    Yes, some U.S. Soldiers died, but tens of times as many died of the maleviolent flu strain that spread in the same time period. In the end the U.S.’s full scale involvement was very important in ending the conflict when it was ended. They broke the stalemate and tipped the balance to the allies, the only thing unfortunate about it was the aftermath.

    I’m not someone in the dark ages, we don’t live in a closed world and haven’t for a long time. Every country, not just America, has a moral obligation to maintain peace and stability throughout the world because what affects anyone effects all of us.

    Yes, I don’t think it would have been a good idea to stay out and let hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Europeans die in a prolonged struggle, or get in and lose a few American lives but end the conflict faster. An American’s life isn’t more important to me than the life of a citizen of any other country.

  38. Could the same be said of Jefferson?  I don’t think it’s entirely fair to Wilson given his background and the time and space of his upbringing.  Neither, of course, is he a profile in courage with regards to race.  A man like Justice Black certain went farther in his evolution on such issues than Wilson ever thought of.

  39. That you are misquoting me from. This is what I said:

    Count me among those who do not want to see Dems risk our narrow-as-can-be majority in the state Senate in order to try picking up NY-23 – especially if, as some speculate, the district will be eliminated come 2012.

    So, I didn’t say anything like what you are claiming. I linked to a third-party analysis which claimed that NY-23 would be on the chopping block. To make what I said extremely clear:

    a) I do not want the Dems to risk their state Senate majority on this race, and

    b) It would be especially foolish to risk our Senate majority on this race if this district won’t even exist in 2012

    I have no idea if the if clause in “b” will come to pass. But it’s certainly at least a possibility… and there are ten thousand and one other redistricting possibilities for New York.

  40. Things have probably reached their limit there. The base has never really changed its view, its just that the leadership has compromised so much they’ve become the compromise, up until recently the membership were prepared to let them do it in the name of electability, and now it’s hard to stop them because the membership’s atrophied.

    The worm may yet turn. If we ever want to win power again, we need to get our core vote back and voting regularly. It’s likely we’ll have to move left to do that.

  41. makes me wish that FDR had not won all 58 of California’s counties in 1936, and 57 in 1932 (all but Riverside). I almost would have liked to see longer streaks of Republican wins in some counties that Obama won or came close to winning (only Orange County!).

  42. This is what SSP excels at.  Great job silver spring.

    It is fascinating to see the realignment finally cracking some of the most historically Republican parts of this country in the northeast, even as we lose some of the most historically Democratic counties elsewhere.

  43. The thing is, as I see it, Jefferson didn’t represent a regression at the time. Wilson, on the other hand, was actively supporting a regression in race relations and murder of black Americans who were too “uppity.” There’s a difference between being a product of one’s times and a reactionary. It’s ironic that Wilson was progressive in many ways, but yet a reactionary racist.

  44. Of being a bellwether state – the saying was, “As goes Maine, so goes the nation.” After 1936, Mainers were heartily mocked with the obvious, “As goes Maine, so goes Vermont.”

  45. Theodore Roosevelt was never meant to be President.  He was picked as VP to get him out of his powerful position as Governor of New York, then the most populous state in the Union.  Only an assassin’s bullet and bad medical care put MCKinley in the grave and “that damned cowboy” into the White House.

    TR lost the Republican nomination in 1912 in big part because he was an integrationist in part.  Blacks entered the White House as hononred guest throught the front door when he was President.  Despite winning most of the few primaries, Taft used his organizational muscle particularly in the South to claim (the mostly worthless) nomination.

    TR won personal victories.  PA for one (he backed the miner’s union against the mine owners) but got 88 electoral votes and Wilson waltzed through.

    Wilson, of course, grew up in the south and depended to some extent on southern votes.  What people tend to forget is that TR’s mother was from Georgia and he did not buy into any part of that.

    I’ve always felt that Wilson was the man in the middle (although liberal compared to most of his predecessors) with Roosevelt on the left (civil rights, environment, labor) and Taft on the right.

  46. I also appreciate your use of “commentator” rather than the abysmal “commenter”!  :-)

  47. TR’s foreign policy was terribly imperialist, and that established a lasting bad precedent. But I think his domestic policy, including ground-breaking trust-busting and environmentalism, had a lasting positive legacy. Every president without exception did something notably bad (e.g. among presidents I consider among the top 5: Washington’s support for the Alien and Sedition Act, Lincoln’s poor choices for Union generals, Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans and meager help to victims and refugees from Nazi genocide), but with the huge caveat of his foreign policy, I think that TR was one of the best presidents in history.

  48. Well, I misunderstood you. But my point still stands at this moment; the southern tier has been bleeding population and it makes much more sense to eliminate a district like Christopher Lee’s down there, that’s a done deal if Dems take NY-23.

  49. was a major force against Al Smith in the South.  In NC, Hoover won the state based on the rumors that Smith would take his orders from the Vatican.

    Anyway, NY-23 is a district that the Democrats should takeover soon, if not this year.  

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