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An unknown battles an NY giant for U.S. Senate seat

Jay Townsend, candidate for Senate, arrives at the

Jay Townsend, candidate for Senate, arrives at the New York State Republican Convention. (June 1, 2010) Credit: Howard Schnapp

WASHINGTON - Jay Townsend has helped scores of Republicans run for office in New York and across the country. Now it's his turn.

The political consultant became a candidate for the first time this year and won in last month's New York primary.

His prize? A race against a veteran New York Democrat pundits call almost unbeatable: Sen. Charles Schumer.

Not only does Schumer lead by double digits in recent polls, he has $23 million more in campaign cash.

"I'm doing the same things I've done for the past 51/2 years," Schumer said of his campaign. "I work hard for New York."

Townsend's not impressed.

"There is a political graveyard filled with well-funded candidates," he said. Besides, he added, "Something is going on in New York."

The difference is clear

That "something" is anger at Washington, and frustration with unemployment, deficits and the economy in the year of outsiders and tea parties.

Its effect will be tested when voters go to the polls Nov. 2. And in the race between the top two candidates running to represent New York in the U.S. Senate, they'll have a distinct choice.

Schumer, 59, a lifelong Democratic politician, has helped pass the Obama agenda: the stimulus package, health care overhaul, Wall Street reform. He's pushed other government measures he said will help the middle class and New York.

Townsend, 55, a longtime Republican political consultant, opposes the Obama agenda as anti-business. He calls for repealing the health care overhaul, extending Bush tax cuts and freezing property taxes.

Yet the most significant difference could be that nearly everyone in New York knows Chuck Schumer, but most have never heard of Jay Townsend.

When Townsend announced his run in May, no one else had stepped up. "His initial reason was not to give Schumer a free ride," said colleague and GOP pollster Michael Dawidziak, founder of Strategic Planning in Bohemia.

Little known despite his work on local campaigns and appearances on Fox News, Townsend asked Democrats to join him. It's an appeal reflecting his own journey.

Switching sides

Townsend grew up a Democrat in Indiana, where his father was a state legislator and 1984 candidate for governor.

At age 23, Townsend worked as an aide to his dad's friend Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), then came to New York for graduate work at Cornell and stayed for a political consulting job.

But he said he underwent an "ideological conversion" in 1986, inspired by the re-election bid of Gov. Mario Cuomo, father of the current Democratic candidate for governor. "I was disgusted by his campaign," he said, citing Cuomo's "economic move to the left, [his view] there is nothing private industry can do better."

A decade later Townsend signed on as presidential campaign manager for conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan.

Buchanan lost. But he's just one of about 300 candidates Townsend said he's assisted. As the candidate of the New York GOP and Conservative Party, he said he now should be judged by his own words.

Townsend echoes the GOP fix for the ailing economy: providing certainty to business by extending the Bush tax cuts and repealing the health care law.

Schumer, he charges, has taken the opposite road as upstate has been "hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs" and 1.5 million people moved away.

"You can't get any more 'career politician,' " Townsend said, "than Chuck Schumer."

Yet he has little money to get that message out. He appears to be relying on his networks upstate and tea partiers' support.

A senator's schedule

Recently, Schumer began the day here chairing a morning Rules Committee hearing on whether to change the Senate's arcane rules on filibusters.

Next was a midday news conference to tout his bill, the DISCLOSE Act, to require corporations and unions to reveal their role in TV ads they buy.

Then he dropped by an afternoon Banking Committee hearing to go to bat for Valley Stream homeowners, pitching a moratorium on mandatory insurance for those put in high-risk zones by new flood maps.

Schumer has won 14 general elections without a loss since he took public office in 1974.

He's still popular: a recent poll found a quarter of New York Republicans back him.

Running on his record

But Schumer's political victories overshadow his legislative achievements. Since his re-election in 2004, he scored many hits on the Bush administration, including his probe of White House firings of eight U.S. attorneys and his blocking of judicial appointments, while engineering Democrats' Senate takeover and rising in his party.

But his two landmark bills on immigration and campaign finance stalled as President Barack Obama opted for health care and Wall Street reform.

Schumer defended Obama, saying "he's accomplished many things," but also offered a critique: "There's got to be more focus on talking to and focusing on the middle class."

And that is Schumer's mantra as he seeks a third term, with a shot at becoming the Democrats' Senate leader if Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada were to lose.

He's playing up his Brooklyn roots, touting a tuition tax credit and commuter tax benefit, and stressing he won the biggest share of stimulus funds and worked with companies to keep jobs in New York.

But Schumer doesn't seem to be worried about Townsend.

He didn't even mention him in an interview and brushed off his attacks, saying, "My record speaks for itself."

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