Less than two weeks after Rep. Nan Hayworth was sworn into office in January 2011, she stepped up to the podium on the floor of the House of Representatives and gave an impassioned plea for repeal of President Barack Obama's health care law.
"The bill we are considering is in no way symbolic," the freshman Republican lawmaker said. "It represents the true will of the American people, the majority of whom have stated time after time, to this day, that they reject this law."
Those words have echoed and re-echoed through a rough fall campaign in the 18th Congressional District, where Hayworth faces a determined challenge from Sean Patrick Maloney, once an aide to President Bill Clinton. Maloney has portrayed Hayworth as a Tea Party radical who has ignored her constituents while indulging herself in partisan bickering in Washington.
"She is the chief engineer on the Tea Party express," the 46-year-old Maloney said during a recent interview with Newsday. "Her priorities have become so extreme that she's lost sight of what regular folks need in their everyday lives."
Hayworth has worked hard to clarify her moderate -- some would say liberal -- positions on key social issues. She has counterattacked with charges that Maloney is a "carpetbagger" who parachuted into the district to further personal ambitions.
To be sure, Maloney has his own problems. A recent poll showed him trailing Hayworth by more than 10 points and suggested that voters in the newly reconfigured 18th District don't know him well enough to even consider voting for him.
Hayworth, 52, was swept to power in 2010 on a wave of Tea Party-infused anti-incumbent sentiment. She made opposition to Obama's health care law a major focus of her first term, even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it constitutional.
Banking on some backlash, the Democratic Party and allied groups have targeted Hayworth as a vulnerable incumbent. Both parties see the district as a swing district. Hayworth's two-term predecessor, John Hall, was a Democrat. Hall's predecessor, Sue Kelly, was a Republican.
Hayworth rejects Tea Party label
For months, Maloney's campaign has hammered away at Hayworth's connections with the Tea Party movement, aggressively using the Tea Party's alleged radicalism against her. Along the same lines, Maloney harps on the proposal by the Republican vice presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), to reduce the federal debt by slashing entitlement programs, characterizing that as radical.
Hayworth, an ophthalmologist-turned-politician, dismisses the Tea Party label as a distortion.
During an interview with Newsday.com, she talked about "voting with Obama" on more than a few issues and emphasized that she doesn't always see eye-to-eye with conservative groups, particularly when it comes to social issues such as women's reproductive rights and environmental protection.
Hayworth says she opposes late-term abortions and federal funding for abortion clinics, but then boldly announces herself as pro-choice, a position anathema to the Tea Party and to most conservative Republicans.
On the environment, Hayworth says she believes in man-made climate change -- another position regarded as heresy in Tea Party circles -- and points out that she has at times clashed with other House Republicans over conservative-driven efforts to defund the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"I support the EPA and the Clean Water Act and think global warming needs to be taken seriously," Hayworth told Newsday.com. On the other hand, she says she does not support "cap and trade" policies to reduce greenhouse gases by lowering carbon dioxide emissions.
Hayworth lives in Bedford. She has a son who is gay, and has been a prominent advocate for gay and lesbian rights in Washington. In November, she joined the congressional Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Equality Caucus, making her one of three Republicans in the mostly Democratic group. She is one of six Republicans backing a bill that would ensure same-sex marriage partners receive the same federal tax exemptions that heterosexual couples receive.
She supports the Tea Party's positions on reducing the federal debt and the size of government.
"When it comes to the issue of constitutional government, I'm with them," she said. "I want the federal government to respect its role in our lives and not go beyond that, because that actually deprives us of hard-fought freedoms."
Maloney makes pitch for change
Maloney is making his first run for Congress, having emerged from a five-way Democratic primary with support from the region's labor unions and from his former boss, Bill Clinton, who made a recording used in campaign "robocalls" for Maloney.
A Manhattan-based attorney, Maloney has worked for several NYC-based law firms. He represented the family of hate crime victim Matthew Shepard and obtained political asylum for Carlos Kellner, a well-known Honduran labor-rights leader. He served as a top aide to former governors Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson. He was a candidate in the 2006 Democratic primary for attorney general, losing to current Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
On the campaign trail, Maloney has advocated improved education and worker training and more robust job creation. But most of his talking points relate to Hayworth's positions on health care and social issues. He suggests that Hayworth has voted for several "extremist" anti-abortion bills in the House, including a bill banning federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
"Romney, Ryan and Hayworth are trying to end Medicare and pass the costs on to seniors -- all to pay for huge new tax giveaways for millionaires like themselves," Maloney said in one recent broadside. "Now that Ryan has been added to the ticket, Hayworth's Tea Party ideology has officially taken over the Republican Party."
Maloney argues that the "carpetbagger" issue is fake. He recently bought a home in Cold Spring with his partner, Randy Florke, and three adopted children. Previously he had spent only weekends in the district, at a vacation home in Sullivan County. He said he believes most voters don't care about the geography.
"This election isn't about ZIP codes," Maloney said. "It's about fighting for middle- and working-class families, which is what I am doing, while Nan Hayworth is out fighting for multimillionaires like herself who want more tax breaks."
Noting Hayworth's substantial lead over Maloney in recent polls, experienced political professionals question the wisdom of the Democrat's anti-Tea Party tactics.
Conservative groups give Hayworth lukewarm ratings for conservative orthodoxy. The American Conservative Union gave her a 72 out of 100 rating in 2011, based on her congressional voting record.
"To call her a darling of the Tea Party is a stretch," said Sheryl Thomas, president of Tea Party Works, which operates in Orange and Sullivan counties, including a huge swath of the 19th District, the district Hayworth represents.
Political pros say the new 18th District is likely to favor moderates.
"As long as the incumbent is moderate and not extreme, they are likely to get re-elected," Edelman said. "The moderates are going to determine this election."
Where they stand on the issues:
Job creation and the economy
Hayworth said she has been focused on reining in federal spending, eliminating unnecessary and counterproductive regulations, reducing the high cost of energy and repairing the nation's infrastructure.
Maloney said he wants to "grow the economy" by restoring the manufacturing industry, ending tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas, and lowering taxes for companies that keep jobs in the Hudson Valley.
Hayworth opposes Obama's health care law and has voted with other House Republicans to repeal it, arguing that it places an unnecessary burden on small-business owners and adds to the national debt. A physician, she has said she endorses "the goals" of the law. She has said it should be replaced, but with an alternative plan.
Maloney supports Obama's health care law and has made a major campaign issue out of Hayworth's opposition to it, accusing her of "putting insurance companies before patients." He argues that reforms were desperately needed. He says repealing the law would eliminate consumer protections that already have helped millions of Americans.
Hayworth says she supports reducing the national debt by cutting spending and reducing the size of the federal government. She supports Ryan's controversial proposal to reduce the nearly $16-trillion federal debt by slashing entitlement programs and restructuring Medicare programs.
Maloney says that, if elected, he would work to get the debt under control by "cutting wasteful spending, ending the Bush tax cuts and closing special corporate tax loopholes -- not by cutting the investments in education, job training and high-tech research that create jobs." He opposes the Ryan budget and has criticized Hayworth's support for it.
Hayworth describes herself as socially moderate and is pro-choice -- by her standard -- but opposes late-term abortions and federal funding for abortion clinics. She has voted with other House Republicans to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
Maloney is also pro-choice, but supports federal funds for Planned Parenthood and access to contraception.