WASHINGTON — If last year's contests for the 48th state Senate District in Northern New York seemed intense, wait for the race to fill Rep. John M. McHugh's seat in Congress.
National Democratic and Republican committees already are warming up for a fight, studying maps of the north country, figuring out who the region's political players are and considering how much money they may need to pour into advertising — assuming Mr. McHugh is confirmed as the next secretary of the Army this summer and vacates the seat. A special election could come in the late summer or fall.
Without knowing whether the right candidates will step forward for a real contest, both parties seem poised for what could be the most expensive and visible congressional race the north country has seen. It could even look familiar if state Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine, D-Cape Vincent, and Assemblyman William A. Barclay, R-Pulaski, emerge as the candidates, replaying last year's special election for the state Senate seat vacated by James W. Wright, R-Watertown.
"We're in constant contact, almost on a daily basis, actually," said Sean M. Hennessey, Jefferson County Democratic chairman, of his calls with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which supports candidates in selected House races.
The DCCC has taken serious interest in the congressional district for the first time and is helping to recruit candidates. The Republicans are responding similarly, alarmed by President Obama's 52-48 percent victory there last year and the GOP's struggles to hold on to seats in the Northeast. If Democrats turn the district in their favor, the Republicans' House membership would fall to two members from New York and none from New England.
While the seat will do nothing to change the Democrats' dominance in the House, losing it would further cement the GOP's public image as irrelevant in the Northeast and undermine morale.
Both campaign committees have been in contact with top county political leaders in the district, which includes all or part of 11 counties. Neither, through spokesmen, was willing to commit to funding candidates, although that would be the next logical step after two major candidates emerge.
If this year's special election in the 20th Congressional District, covering the Hudson Valley and part of the Adirondacks, is an indication, the cost of a congressional race may rival the contests for the north country state Senate seat.
The National Republican Congressional Committee poured nearly $900,000 into that House race, in which the Democratic candidate, Scott Murphy, beat a better-known Republican, Assemblyman James N. Tedisco, in a district with a greater Republican registration advantage than Mr. McHugh's.
The DCCC put $591,000 into the race.
"Democrats have painted a big target on this district, but we believe it is winnable with a candidate who can carry on John McHugh's legacy of working across party lines," Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the NRCC, said in a statement. Once a candidate is selected, he said, "we will provide the assistance that is needed to help the nominee build a strong campaign around the issues that are important to upstate New Yorkers."
A spokesman for the DCCC, Shripal Shah, took a similar tack.
"This district is winnable with the right candidate, but it will be tough. Right now our focus is on working with local Democrats to recruit a strong candidate," he said.
For the Democrats, the possible field includes Mr. Aubertine, former assistant state Attorney General John T. Sullivan Jr., Michael P. Oot of Munnsville, who lost to Mr. McHugh last year, and a former federal prosecutor from Wellesley Island, Daniel J. French. None has committed.
Possible strong Republican contenders include Mr. Barclay and Assemblywoman Dierdre K. Scozzafava, who has been fighting rumors she is considering switching parties under pressure from organized labor, with the Obama administration playing a role in the background.
Also on the Republican side is Matthew Doheny, a 38-year-old political newcomer from Alexandria Bay who has indicated a willingness to spend his own money, although he disputed a New York Daily News report that he would start with $250,000.
Winning the district would be a major coup for Democrats, who have not represented some parts of the north country since Reconstruction. But the national party faces considerable hurdles, Democrats say, even though the Cook Political Report has rated the district as a toss-up — a nod mainly to Mr. Obama's victory there.
The biggest, perhaps, is that Democrats have no track record in the congressional district and a very limited political network for the DCCC to draw on. In the 20th Congressional District, at least, Mrs. Gillibrand had already won two high-profile, expensive elections by the time Mr. Murphy appeared. Republican voters already had become comfortable with voting for a Democrat, which is exactly the opposite of the 23rd Congressional District, where Mr. McHugh has collected many Democratic votes over the years.
A Republican could benefit from some of Mr. McHugh's leftover campaign cash, but no such war chest exists for a Democrat. The district is home to five media markets and is one of the biggest districts geographically east of the Mississippi, said June F. O'Neill, state Democratic chairwoman and a St. Lawrence County resident.
"But we're preparing," she said.
Spokesmen for both parties said the competitiveness — and their own involvement — depends entirely on who the candidates are. Mr. Aubertine would be considered very competitive from the outset. Mr. Sullivan, a former co-chairman of the state Democratic Committee, knows the county chairmen who will pick the candidate and might be a strong candidate where Republican voters are most plentiful, his home territory of Oswego County.
What the DCCC will not want to see is another obscure or even bizarre candidate, which Mr. McHugh encountered many times in his political career. The DCCC has passed up opportunities to back candidates in the region, even in 2006 and 2008, when anti-war sentiment might have made Mr. McHugh vulnerable.
Should Ms. Scozzafava be the Republican candidate, she probably can count on some support from organized labor, as her husband, Ronald P. MacDougall, is president of the Central Trades and Labor Council for Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties — a connection of which Mr. Shah at the DCCC was unaware. The national Republican committee also has limited experience in the district, but the Republican network is far more established.
As secretary of the Army, Mr. McHugh may not be in a position to endorse a Republican heir to his congressional seat, although the value of a Republican endorsement in such a GOP stronghold may be an open question.
The involvement of national parties will put the north country on the political map, but that could backfire. In the 20th Congressional District, Mr. Tedisco sensed the public backlash at the money, advertising and handling coming from the party and, late in the campaign, announced he no longer wanted help from Washington. It was too late.
Mr. Murphy kept his Democratic help, but cautiously, by his own estimation.
Once the county committees selected him as a largely unknown candidate, "it was just about getting out and talking to people," Mr. Murphy said in an interview. "We didn't have a new message when someone from Washington showed up."