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NY21: candidates may shape each other in a district colored with shades of blue, shades of red

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CANTON - Wanted: moderate candidate with the ability to win a swing district. Public speaking skills and a large cash hoard considered a plus. Previous party affiliation not necessarily required.

U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, announced Tuesday that he would not be seeking re-election in New York’s 21st Congressional District in 2014, motivating Republican candidates and surprising the Democratic party.

But ahead of the heat of battle, a strategic question looms: what exactly is the nature of the 21st district?

Once considered solidly Republican, the district has been won in recent election cycles by Democratic candidates, including President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

What accounts for this?

According to Siena College Research Institute pollster Steven A. Greenberg, it could be part of the natural life cycle of an area.

“People move in, people move out; young people become voters, people die. People’s attitudes change as they get older,” he said.

Or it could also be explained by a 2012 redistricting that added to the district’s eastern boundary and subtracted from the western.

The real reason may be hard to discern, especially given the size of the district, which is one of the largest east of the Mississippi.

It is not only the district’s size but also its population density, or lack thereof, that makes it so hard to define, according to Thomas Konda, associate professor of political science at SUNY Plattsburgh.

“Its size and the fact that it is so evenly populated just makes it a hard district to run in,” Mr. Konda said.

Though Republicans outnumber Democrats overall, there are pockets of Democratic supporters in the district — along the Route 11 corridor and the Canadian border — that bolster the party’s influence, though the district, which is without a large population center, is colored in shades of blue and red rather than painted in bold brush strokes.

On Nov. 1, there were 402,327 enrolled voters in the district, according to information provided by the Jefferson County Board of Elections.

Of those voters, 117,328 were registered Democrats and 172,196 were registered Republicans — a difference of 54,868 voters in the Republicans favor.

There were 5,623 Conservative, 1,688 Working Party, 24,266 Independent, 976 Green Party voters and 80,171 unaffiliated voters.

The district is some 16,000 square miles, divided by the Adirondack mountains and economically diverse. Without a large city in the mix, it can be hard for candidates to gain name recognition prior to a campaign, according to Mr. Konda.

“It’s relatively impossible for anyone to become well known throughout the district,” Mr. Konda said.

The state redraws its congressional boundaries every 10 years to account for shifts in population. What is now the 21st district was known as the 23rd district in 2009, where Mr. Owens was first propelled to power by a divided Republican party.

Rep. John M. McHugh, a Republican who represented the north country in the House of Representatives for 16 years, was named Secretary of the Army that year and a special election was called to find his successor.

Mr. Owens had no party affiliation when he was selected by the district’s 11 Democratic county chairpersons after their favored candidate, then-state Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine, decided not to run.

A contentious campaign between Conservative candidate Douglas L. Hoffman and Republican candidate Dierdre K. Scozzafava split the vote during a special election in 2009, sending Mr. Owens to Washington.

His voting record, aside from his support of the Affordable Care Act, has been largely conservative, according to Raymond E. Petersen, a political science professor at Jefferson Community College and director of the college’s Center for Community Studies. In fact, he was endorsed by the National Rifle Association over Republican challenger Matthew A. Doheny in the 2012 election.

Before his announcement Tuesday, Mr. Owens was expected to continue to defend the seat from the Republicans continually gathering at the gate to reclaim the territory they had held for more than a century.

But all may not be lost.

To regroup and reclaim the seat, Democrats simply need to find a suitable candidate and hope that recent history repeats itself.

“I don’t think this is a done deal at all for the Republicans,” said Grant Reeher, director of the Alan K. Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.

Mr. Reeher acknowledged that the Democrats were in a tough spot.

All three races Mr. Owens ran were close, and his cause was helped considerably by the inability of Republicans to unite, he said.

Presumed Republican front-runner Elise M. Stefanik, Willsboro, has been picking up steam of late, visiting GOP County Committee candidate endorsement meetings across the district and already garnering support from the Saratoga County Committee. Ms. Stefanik has already raised more than $160,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

But Mr. Owens’s late-breaking announcement could draw one or more people into the race at this point, according to Mr. Reeher.

Whatever candidates emerge may go a long way toward determining who the Democrats pick to run.

According to Mr. Reeher, the they will be looking for a moderate candidate cast in the Owens mold, someone who:

n Presents an air of reasonableness.

n Has some business experience.

n Is well-spoken.

n Has access to money or money of his or her own.

For now, it appears that whatever the Democrats decide to do will depend, in large part, on what the Republicans do.

And Ms. Stefanik’s prospects for nomination, while promising, are not yet assured.

“It’s possible, if not likely, that other Republican candidates will come forward,” said Daniel S. Lempert, assistant professor in the Department of Politics at SUNY Potsdam.

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