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Ambitious Sean Eldridge Polishes His Message

Ambitious Sean Eldridge Polishes His Message

By Scott Conroy - November 14, 2013

He may be a 27-year-old, first-time political candidate, but Sean Eldridge doesn't come across like one.

In an interview with RealClearPolitics this week, Eldridge -- the husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and a candidate for the Democratic nomination in New York’s 19th Congressional District -- sounded more polished and on-message than many of the longtime U.S. House members he hopes to join in Washington.

It’s been less than two months since the Class of 2009 Brown University graduate declared his intention to challenge incumbent Republican Chris Gibson, a moderate-leaning Army combat veteran. But the heavily polished and unquestionably sharp candidate has already refined an ability to sprinkle his answers to just about any question with a healthy dose of focus-group-tested phrases.

Promising to deliver “common-sense solutions that will help middle-class families” was one favored refrain that he dropped on multiple occasions during the 25-minute interview.

Canada-born and Ohio-raised, Eldridge’s nascent campaign in upstate New York got off to an inauspicious start when the New York Times published an unfavorable story in July about his recent home-buying habits.

That piece brought to light Eldridge and Hughes’ house-hunting exploits in the Hudson Valley: The young couple purchased a $5 million estate in the town of Garrison in 2011, but then settled earlier this year on a $2 million home in a neighboring district -- that just so happened to offer a more attainable House seat.

In the interview with RCP, Eldridge (pictured above, at right, with Hughes) said the district-shopping charge is “untrue,” pointing to his work with Hudson River Ventures -- the investment fund that he started in 2011, which has since helped grow 15 small businesses in the area.

“I was investing in this region long before I became a candidate, and I chose to live here and start my company here because I think it’s an incredible place to live,” he said.

From the moment he emerged on their radar screen, national Republicans have been licking their chops at the prospect of taking on Eldridge, “a carpet-bagging multimillionaire who’s a good friend of Nancy Pelosi and wants to hang out with her at swank D.C. cocktail parties with a little pin that says ‘Member of Congress,’” as New York Republican Party communications director David Laska put it recently.

Earlier this month, the National Republican Congressional Committee engaged in a bit of mischief-making by submitting an anti-Eldridge advertisement to The New Republic -- the magazine owned by Hughes.

Predictably, the publication declined to run the ad, and Eldridge suggested that the stunt was emblematic of the glib manner in which his opponents have chosen to target him.

“From the moment I’ve gotten into this race, they’ve been focused on distractions exactly like that, rather than on the issues,” he said. “They want to focus on those personal attacks because they don’t want to talk about how Congressman Gibson has voted to end Medicare as we know it, defund Planned Parenthood, or to shut down the government, or to cut critical environmental protections which are very important to our region.”

To counter the elitist, jet-setting image of him that Republicans have been eager to perpetuate, Eldridge takes pains to emphasize that he attended public schools in a small town outside of Toledo.

Rather than mention that his parents are physicians, a fact that was noted in his splashy 2012 wedding announcement in The New York Times, he prefers to talk about how his father was the first in his family to attend high school.

“I come from a modest background, and that has certainly shaped my perspective on how important it is to fight for middle-class families,” he said.

Eldridge has honed an anti-Washington message, which is being echoed by congressional challengers from coast to coast with heightened emphasis in the aftermath of the federal government shutdown.

Running in a swing district that will be among the nation’s most closely watched in next year’s midterms, Eldridge has vowed to be an independent voice on Capitol Hill. In the interview, he declined to say whether he would support Nancy Pelosi for speaker if Democrats retake control of the House.

Republicans protest that this claim of political independence reeks of insincerity, given that Eldridge is a partially self-funded candidate whose campaign coffers have also been filled by some of the most prominent members of the Hollywood-New York-Washington axis of progressive elites, with whom he and his husband frequently rub shoulders.

But there is at least one area in which Eldridge is particularly eager to break from the party line.

Asked to name a policy position that runs counter to that of the Democratic leadership, he delivered a stern rebuke to the Obama administration for its bungled rollout of the national health care reform law.

“I’m very frustrated with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “I think there are a lot of important elements of the Affordable Care Act, and I think it’s critical that every single American has access to quality, affordable health care. But I’m very frustrated that the Obama administration has not been able to roll out the Affordable Care Act smoothly, and obviously these problems with the website and enrollment are serious challenges.”

True to his otherwise circumspect approach, however, Eldridge declined to say whether he would have voted for the bill, knowing what he does now about its implementation, had he been a member of Congress in 2010.

“It’s impossible to speculate on something when I wasn’t there and wasn’t in the room and didn’t have an opportunity to vote on it,” he said. “But what I would say now moving forward is that I would not vote more than 40 times, as my opponent has, to repeal the Affordable Care Act.”

Some Democrats in the 19th District have begun to pick up the distinct whiff of a perilously flawed candidate in Eldridge, and The Daily Star, an upstate newspaper, reported that local Democratic attorney Frank Steinherr is eyeing a potential primary challenge to him.

But Eldridge’s formidable strengths as a well-financed, eloquent messenger with powerful friends in the Democratic Party remain obvious.

Though he has already contributed nearly $500,000 to his House bid, Eldridge has made campaign finance reform a key part of his platform, advocating for more transparency in the system, greater enforcement of the existing rules, and a small-dollar matching-funds system for congressional races.

And having served as a senior adviser for Freedom to Marry -- a group that helped lead the successful 2011 charge for legalized same-sex marriage in New York -- his credibility among progressives on this key issue is ironclad.

Eldridge touts his leadership on same-sex marriage on his campaign website but made no mention in his announcement video of his marriage to Hughes -- an unusual omission for any candidate introducing himself to would-be constituents.

Instead, he referred to the Hudson Valley as the place where he is building “my family, my home, and my business.”

“I think that my marriage to Chris is a pretty well-known fact about me,” Eldridge explained. “It’s certainly in the vast majority of articles that are written. In the announcement video, we were really focused on telling my story and talking about some of the elements of my background that aren’t as well known.”

Eldridge said that he felt “personally indebted to the countless activists” who have moved the country forward on LGBT issues and other matters of equality in recent years and added his view that Hillary Clinton would be “a great president.”

He declined to offer a timeline when asked when the country might be ready to elect its first openly gay president, but did not hesitate in saying why that person would not be him:

“I’ll tell you an important fact on that front, which is I was born in Montreal, Canada, so it’s not something you ever have to worry about. We’re very much focused on this race.” 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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