When Martin Babinec heard that Rep. Richard Hanna, his congressman in Upstate New York, was retiring earlier this year, he knew this would be his chance to run for an open seat in Congress.
Babinec had grown up the son of a factory worker in Little Falls, N.Y., moved overseas to work with the Navy, and then founded TriNet, a cloud-based human resources company that grew to $2.7 billion in revenue in 2015. Six years ago, he started a non-profit to help fund start-ups in the area and keep talent, jobs, and warm bodies in the region, which has seen an outmigration of more than one million people in the last 10 years.
“When Hanna announced his retirement, I was not expecting it and I was not doing anything actively to position myself for running for office,” Babinec said, in a recent interview. “But I was aware there are opportunities to leverage the congressional role to take this mission that I’ve been on to make a difference to the next level next level.”
It would all read like a modern-day sequel to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, except for what happened next when Babinec, a multimillionaire and hometown do-gooder, approached local Republicans to explore running for the seat.
“There were some Republicans who supported my message and welcomed my candidacy, but there were a significant number who felt that because I had been an independent voter and not a Republican that they couldn’t get behind it for the sole reason that I had not been a Republican,” Babinec said. “And that’s kind of what’s wrong with our system, where the emphasis on partisanship outweighs what’s the right message and what changes are we trying to make.”
Discouraged by Republicans, but still focused on a seat in Congress, Babinec founded the Upstate Jobs Party to run as its candidate, and now finds himself in a three-way race for the open seat, along with Democrat Kim Myers , whose family founded Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Republican Claudia Tenney, a conservative New York Assemblywoman.
A cursory glance at the $12 million spent in this race is all it takes to understand how important winning the NY-22 seat is to both parties. The Democratic House Majority PAC has pumped more than $2.5 million into the race, while the National Republican Congressional Committee has put in another $2.4 million. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tapped Myers for its “Red to Blue” priority candidate program to flip GOP-held seats, while the NRCC named Tenney to its Young Guns program.
The most recent Siena poll from the end of September showed Babinec trailing, but competitive with Myers and Tenney, who ran against Hanna in the 2014 GOP primary as a Tea Party-backed candidate whom Hannah has refused to endorse. Tenney was winning with 35% to Myers’ 30% and Babinec’s 24%.
Steve Greenberg, who conducted the Siena poll, describes Babinec as “not your grandfather’s third-party candidate.”
“As of a month ago, the three candidates were within 11 points of each other,” he said. “That is a legitimate three way race.”
In the sprawling district, which went for Mitt Romney with 49% in 2012 and has both Donald Trump and Sen. Chuck Schumer up by double-digits, Greenberg said the most unusual aspect of Babinec’s performance is how evenly he is drawing support from different groups. In the Siena poll, Babinec drew 22% of Democrats, 24% of Republicans, and 25% of independents. He was winning 24% of people from the southern portion of the district, 23% from the middle, and 24% from the northern portion. He polled at 23% among men and 24% of women.
“I’ve never seen something where between 22% and 25% of every party, every region, every gender are supporting a third-party candidate,” he said.
Babinec has said he would caucus with House Republicans and supports Paul Ryan for Speaker and doesn’t know who he’ll support for president, but that doesn’t mean the GOP or Democrats are giving him a free pass. NRCC Spokesman Chris Pack said, “The NRCC’s objective has always been to defend and grow our majority, and New York’s 22nd District is no exception.” The NRCC’s ads blanketing the district portray Myers and Babinec as liberals “who both support Hillary Clinton.”
Babinec has also made it into the Democratic House Majority PAC’s attack ads, which call him “too conservative” and Tenney “too sleazy.”
In a statement to the Daily Beast, DCCC spokesman Bryan Lesswing portrayed the race as, “a GOP civil war erupting between conservative candidates Martin Babinec and Claudia Tenney in New York’s 22nd congressional district,” which both Democrats and Republicans believe they will win.
Babinec said the biggest surprise has been how partisan the race has become, even for the man without major party backing. “In terms of partisanship trumping the values and quality of the message,” he said. “This is what’s wrong with our system.”
The next Siena poll will be out before Election Day. It will show whether a candidate without a party can even make a go of it in the district where he was born, who can finance his own race, and wants to serve. No matter the result, Babinec says he and his new Upstate Jobs Party are in New York politics to stay.