CAZENOVIA, N.Y. — Prominent Republicans like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin are bucking the GOP to back a conservative candidate for a House seat in New York, opting to defend what they see as pure party ideology even if it means helping a Democrat win.
Pawlenty, Palin, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, former Sen. Fred Thompson and others are supporting conservative nominee Doug Hoffman, not Republican nominee Dierdre Scozzafava, in Tuesday's special election in the rural, heavily Republican 23rd Congressional District in upstate New York.
Republicans haven't lost here in more than a century, but the schism is opening the way for Democratic nominee Bill Owens. An Oct. 15 survey by Siena College, taken before all the high-profile endorsements, showed Owens with 33 percent, Scozzafava with 29 percent and Hoffman with 23 percent. The poll of 617 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
"I'm fighting for the heart and soul of the Republican Party," Hoffman told The Associated Press. "I believe the people in Washington, and the overwhelming response that I've been getting nationally from individuals, is showing that a lot of people feel like it's time for the Republican Party to go back to its base."
Scozzafava spokesman Matt Burns said: "Everybody who has endorsed Doug Hoffman has something in common with him, and that is that none of them live in the district."
The potential for Owens to win while Hoffman and Scozzafava split conservative votes worries former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who says a vote against Scozzafava and other liberal-leaning Republicans will ensure a Democratic majority for a long time.
"If you seek to be a perfect minority, you'll remain a minority," Gingrich said in a written statement. "That's not how Reagan built his revolution or how we won back the House in 1994."
Conservative voters argue that Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman, is too liberal because of her support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage and her votes for higher spending on New York's state budget.
The backing of several possible 2012 presidential contenders has boosted Hoffman, and money from all over the country has been pouring into his campaign. By staking out support with the conservative candidate, presidential hopefuls like Palin and Pawlenty can send an early a message to voters about which direction they want to lead the GOP.
"America's in trouble," Thompson, a presidential candidate last year, said in an ad with a decidedly Ronald Reagan appeal. "Big government. High taxes. Deficits. Broken promises. ... We can send Washington a message."
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who recently served as the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, responsible for recruiting candidates to carry the GOP's flag, also has endorsed Hoffman.
"Doug Hoffman is right on the critical issues facing America – and he is the only Republican who can win this special election," Cole said in a written statement.
The divided high-profile Republicans reflect a competition for the allegiance of party activists, said John Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in California and a former staffer for the House Republican Research Committee and the Republican National Committee.
"This one race by itself isn't going to be decisive, but it's a way for some of the conservative figures in the party to reinforce their credentials," Pitney said.
Big endorsements are what help candidates like Hoffman raise money, according to Pitney, but they are not hugely influential to voters walking into the polls on Election Day.
"Endorsements don't mean nearly as much as the endorsers like to think," he said.