In Race To Replace McHugh, War For The GOP Soul In New York And Beyond

11/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mike Long, the state chair of the Conservative Party, was running mostly on adrenaline when he sat down for breakfast in mid-July with Doug Hoffman in the upstate resort town of Lake Placid.

Long had stayed up late the night before to watch his son, Matt, finish the town’s IronMan triathlon, three and a half years after Matt had been hit and nearly killed by a New York City bus. Long and hundreds of others cheered as Matt crossed the finish line.

Over a light breakfast and coffee, Long refocused his thoughts on politics and his concerns about Assembly Member Dede Scozzafava, the Republican nominee in the special election to replace Rep. John McHugh. Long considers Scozzafava more liberal than dozens of Democrats in Albany. Hoffman, a Lake Placid businessman, told Long that he was mulling a run on the Conservative Party line against Scozzafava.

Long warned Hoffman that running as a third-party candidate was no easy task.

As Long was driving back home to New York City, Hoffman called to say he would do it.

“And the rest, as they say, is history,” Long said.

The race in the conservative North Country district, which is among the geographically largest east of the Mississippi, has since attracted a torrent of national attention, with some conservatives describing Hoffman’s candidacy as nothing less than a war over the future direction of the Republican Party.

A date for a special election has not been set by the governor.

Scozzafava retains the support of the national Republican establishment, with House Minority Leader John Boehner recently guaranteeing her spot on the Armed Services Committee if she wins election. Hoffman, meanwhile, has been in Washington rounding up support from pro-life and anti-tax political action committees that are not following the lead of the Republican mainstream.

In the condensed timeline of a special election, Scozzafava’s supporters say that her personal popularity, record of strong constituent services and skill in retail politicking will trump the attacks against her, including a recent controversy over Scozzafava’s financial stake in a troubled company owned by her brother.

“Rather than go out and define themselves, her opponents seem content to run negative smear campaigns,” said Matthew Burns, Scozzafava’s campaign manager.

Scozzafava is also trying to position herself as natural heir to McHugh, whom she counts as a close friend and who did not receive the Conservative line during his first run for Congress. McHugh, however, is unlikely to officially make an endorsement in the race, if only because he is now part of the Obama administration.

Scozzafava, whose husband is a labor organizer, could be in the unusual position of getting labor backing instead of her Democratic opponent, Bill Owens. During past Assembly runs, she has run on the Working Families Party line, though her campaign manager said there were no current discussions with the WFP about an endorsement. 1199, a key member of the WFP, recently endorsed Owens, likely decreasing the odds that the WFP would back Scozzafava in this race.

In a district so large and remote that candidates often lose cell phone reception for hours at a time, the natural base for Owens would seem the college campuses across the district, whose strong turnout last year helped Barack Obama win 53 percent of the vote in the district.

Democrats hope that Owens can follow the model of Scott Murphy, a relative unknown who nonetheless was able to beat a more established member of the Assembly by emphasizing a history of job creation.

But Owens, a former Air Force officer and an affluent attorney from Plattsburgh, has already raised eyebrows with local media for rarely campaigning and refusing interview requests.

The other campaigns contend that Owens was picked as the party’s Democratic designee (after State Sen. Darrel Aubertine passed) primarily because of his personal wealth, and that he has taken an evasive strategy in order to cover up his lack of political experience. Owens, who refused to say how much of his own money he was planning on dropping into the race, disputed the idea that he had not been a visible presence so far.

“I don’t think that’s a fair characterization,” Owens said. “What I am doing is running on a clear record of job creation that fits the profile of the district.”

Hoffman’s campaign, meanwhile, is trying to make clear that he is more than a spoiler for the Republican nominee by recently releasing a survey conducted by a nationally respected pollster, John McLaughlin, showing Hoffman with 19 percent of the vote, Owens with 20 percent and Scozzafava with 30 percent.

Hoffman’s campaign manager Rob Ryan, who ran George Pataki’s 1994 insurgent gubernatorial campaign, contended that the strong numbers for the unknown Hoffman indicate that the national mood has fundamentally shifted since July, when Republicans selected Scozzafava as their nominee.

“The decision was made when the Obama honeymoon was still going on,” Ryan said.

Hopeful Conservatives say the current national mood is comparable to that in 1970, when Conservative Party candidate James Buckley became the first and only Conservative ever elected to the Senate. During a moment of national upheaval over the Vietnam War, Buckley snuck into office when a liberal Republican and Democrat split the liberal vote for what had been Robert F. Kennedy’s Senate seat.

Hoffman, however, said he is not so much looking back as forward, toward the implications that his candidacy could have for the 2010 mid-term elections.

“A few months ago, I never would have thought I’d be campaigning for office,” Hoffman said. “It’s time that ordinary people like myself stand up and say they’re fed up.

I think what we’re seeing in the 23rd Congressional District in New York, we’re going to start seeing all across the country.”

ABOVE: (left) Doug Hoffman thinks North County voters will find GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava too liberal. (right) Bill Owens hopes that the Democrats’ string of victories continues.

Read more on The Capitol


Lake Placid
Suggest a correction