ALBANY, N.Y. — Democrat Bill Owens held a slim lead in a special congressional election in northern New York that grabbed national headlines in its final days as it highlighted divisions within the Republican Party.
With about 86 percent of precincts reporting in the heavily Republican 23rd House District, Owens led Tuesday with 49 percent of the vote over surprise contender Doug Hoffman, a member of the state Conservative Party, who had 45 percent.
Republican Dierdre Scozzafava, who withdrew from the race Saturday, had still picked up 6 percent of the vote.
Scozzafava abruptly quit the race over the weekend and backed Owens after some prominent Republicans accused her of being too liberal for the district because of her support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
The race started about five weeks ago with three candidates and is ending with two – Hoffman and Owens, who is seeking to exploit a split in Republican loyalties and recapture a seat held for decades by the GOP.
Hoffman started at a distant third and was viewed as a spoiler at best, cutting away at Scozzafava and opening the door for Owens. But prominent Republicans, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, endorsed Hoffman instead of the party-picked Scozzafava.
With gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, this race was not expected to become a referendum on anything, but between the Republican infighting and attempts by Democrats to portray that as a sign they could retain their majority in the 2010 midterms, Tuesday's special election took on unanticipated importance.
A Hoffman win could force Republicans in Washington to pay closer attention to their votes and positions on issues, rather than counting on the Republican label to get them elected.
"The reality is that the grass roots is not going to walk lockstep on these decisions and so that's a reality (the party is) going to have to deal with," said Tony Fabrizio, a Washington-based Republican pollster and strategist.
An Owens win could signal renewed strength among Democrats, or at least reassure them of Republicans' perceived weakness. It's a seat that has been strongly Republican for decades and is one of only three in the state's 29-seat delegation held by the party. Republican John McHugh vacated the seat in September to become Army secretary.
"They're in a civil war over the definition of their party," said Paul Blank, a Democratic consultant. "And the extremists have won."
No matter the outcome, Republicans will be sorting out their identity as the party tries to strike a balance between growing its ranks and preserving the values that set it apart from the Democratic Party.
"I think that the Republican Party is broad enough to handle many different candidates, but the fact is that I'm a commonsense Conservative Republican – I am not a radical," Hoffman said Monday. "The point is that Assemblywoman Scozzafava was not a moderate Republican; she was an ultraliberal Republican."