New York State

Can a Trump Republican unseat Maloney?

Assembly Member Colin Schmitt has a record that belies claims to bipartisanship as he launches a 2022 congressional bid.

Colin Schmitt at his campaign announcement.

Colin Schmitt at his campaign announcement. Patrick Ryan

Two-term Assembly Member Colin Schmitt has been a young man in a hurry for quite a few years. The 30-year-old Republican staged a press conference on his 18th birthday when he registered to vote. He won a seat in the state Legislature on his third try. A late-2019 self-funded trip to the U.S.-Mexico border demonstrates just how far he was willing to go to build a political profile. So does promoting the idea of mass voter fraud in the making – or a little speech he gave to a busload of constituents headed to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6 to protest the 2020 presidential election results. This last move is already complicating the lifelong Hudson Valley native’s newly announced challenge against incumbent Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney.

Schmitt said in an interview that he did not discuss the election that morning even though he could hardly be unaware of their little role in former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Instead, Schimitt talked about another conspiracy spreading at that time. He declined to directly say whether he believed Joe Biden was the legitimately elected president at the time when he wished his constituents a good trip down to Washington, D.C. Three months later, he says his appearance that morning was no big deal. “I have one of the more bipartisan voting records in the state legislature,” he said. “I'm willing to work with anybody.”

Schmitt has established a record in right-wing politics that belies the bipartisan record that he is claiming as launches his challenge against Maloney, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It is a race with national implications considering his prominence and Democrats’ slim majority in the U.S. House. And if Schmitt somehow beats the odds and flips the seat, it would say a lot about Republicans ability to win in a left-leaning state despite the ongoing influence of former President Donald Trump over New York Republicans. 

Whatever, Schmitt really thinks about the 2020 election – he has called for Jan. 6 insurrectionists to be criminally prosecuted – an April 8 appearance with MAGA star Tucker Carlson demonstrates that reaching diehard Republicans is very much on Schmitt’s mind as his campaign begins. “The former president certainly will continue to have a role in the political process in the Republican Party,” Schmitt. “He activated a new set of voters. I've seen it. People who are not previously involved in the political process, have been activated and decided to vote, decided to volunteer.” Independent and Democratic voters, however, will be key to winning a district that Biden won by nearly five percentage points in 2020. The upcoming round of redistricting suggests the 18th Congressional District could become even more left-leaning once Albany Democrats approve new maps next year. 

It is not easy to get things done as a Republican in the state Capitol. Schmitt points to the dozens of bills that he has co-sponsored with Democratic colleagues. That has added a touch of bipartisanship to efforts to lower barriers to HIV treatments, increase tax incentives for organ donations and create a registration system for vintage snowmobiles. Even his political opponents concede that he was key to securing funding for a park in his Assembly district, which covers a good chunk of the Congressional district straddling the Hudson Valley below Poughkeepsie. 

Yet, the idea that he got much done as a junior member of the Assembly minority strikes many Democrats as very much exaggerated. “In the first year he sponsored the funding for a park in the district ... that's about it,” Orange County Democratic Committee Chair Brett Broge said in an interview. While Democratic State Sen. James Skoufis, who Schmitt unsuccessfully challenged in a 2016 Assembly race, has teamed up with Schmitt on a few parochial issues, Skoufis spokesperson Jessica Gulotta said that their shared efforts for constituents only means so much. "If there’s one thing that unites most elected Democrats and Republicans in the Hudson Valley, it’s their inability to effectively work with Assemblyman Schmitt given his total self-interested, self-promoting, megalomaniac dispositions,” Gulotta said in a statement. 

The odds are indeed stacked against Schmitt. Campaign finance disclosures from the 2020 cycle show he can raise money from construction trades and law enforcement unions. His track record with bail reform shows that he can perform for the cameras. Service as an active member of the National Guard is a pretty solid asset in politics – as is having a reputation as a young go-getter whatever your politics may be. “He has a lot of energy,” Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay said in an interview. “He is passionate and aggressive about representing his district.” Barclay pointed to Schmitt’s advocacy for clean water as one example of how his legislative work has impacted people in an area where that issue is a notorious problem.

Still, the idea that a 30-year-old member of the Assembly is going to take down a nationally known Democrat strikes many as too far-fetched even at a time when many longtime incumbents have fallen to insurgent candidates. Still, Republicans got little to lose by supporting Schmitt, according to Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “He's the head of the DCCC and if they were able to nail him it would be a big feather in their cap,” he said in an interview. It would also get Republicans one seat closer to retaking Congress in the midterm elections, which typically favor the party that is out of the White House. A spokesperson for Maloney did not respond to a request for comment on the race by publication time. 

However, Schmitt – despite youthful energy and the lack of any big name challenger for the GOP nomination for Congress – faces one unprecedented problem for a congressional candidate: His association with the Jan. 6 insurrection. “It’s delusional,” Democratic consultant Evan Stavisky said in an interview. “That doesn't make him a serious candidate. Voters are too smart to reward someone who aided and abetted people seeking to violently overthrow the government of the United States.” But if Schmitt somehow figures out this political equation, how much further might he want to go? 

Asked whether Congress was just one more stepping stone to something bigger like the presidency, Schmitt sidestepped the question. “I’m sure if that ever were to happen it would make my mom very happy,” he said. 

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