GOP Squabbling Jeopardizes N.Y. Seat
By Ben Pershing
A Republican civil war is imperiling the party's chances of retaining an open House seat in upstate New York, as squabbling between GOP conservatives and moderates has provided Democrats with an opening.
On Nov. 3, voters will go to the polls in the 23rd district for a special election to replace Rep. John McHugh (R), who resigned his seat to become Secretary of the Army. But while Republicans like their chances in two other contests being decided that day -- the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey -- the GOP is having problems in the Empire State.
As Democrats have coalesced behind lawyer Bill Owens, Republicans are split between state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, the official GOP candidate, and Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. Though President Obama won the 23rd district -- which covers the northern portion of the state from Lake Ontario to the Vermont border -- with 52 percent of the vote, McHugh was always reelected easily and the district has a history of supporting Republicans. And with GOP electoral hopes across the country on the rise, the environment should be ripe for the seat to stay in the red column.
But the battle between the moderate Scozzafava and the conservative Hoffman has divided Republicans in both New York and Washington, boosting Democrats' hopes in the process.
"It's going to be close," said Rep. Dan Maffei (D), who represents the neighboring 25th district. "Obviously, the three-way dynamic favors us more than a two-way election."
A poll released Thursday by the Siena Research Institute explains why: Owens leads Scozzafava in the contest, 33 percent to 29 percent, while Hoffman draws 23 percent. Those numbers mark a shift from the Siena poll taken just two weeks ago, which had Scozzafava at 35 percent, Owens at 29 and Hoffman at 16.
Scozzafava's campaign has already responded to the poll, telling the Albany Times-Union that she is still in good position because Owens is "out of touch" and Hoffman is "unelectable."
The charge that Scozzafava has been too moderate is being led by Club for Growth, a group that backs fiscally conservative candidates and has a long history of irritating Republican party leaders in the process. The club has spent at least $250,000 on television ads hammering Scozzafava, likening her to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and unpopular New York Gov. David Paterson (D). The group has helped Hoffman raise money, while Scozzafava -- who is also being hit with negative ads from Democrats -- is reportedly low on cash and had to pull a planned ad buy last week. (None of the candidates has filed fundraising reports with the Federal Election Commission yet.)
Some on the right have stepped up to try to help Scozzafava. She got the endorsement of the National Rifle Association last week, and several Republicans in Washington -- including House Majority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Majority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) -- have cut checks to her campaign. But the support from House Republicans, both verbal and financial, has been relatively meager given that the seat is at risk. Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, declined to comment Thursday when asked by Capitol Briefing whom he was backing in the contest. The Hill notes that House GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) has also pointedly declined to endorse a candidate.
Conservatives complaints about Scozzafava center on her votes on economic and budget issues in New York, and her support for abortion rights and gay rights (the Family Research Council has endorsed Hoffman because of Scozzafava's social views). But her backers point out that McHugh is also a moderate, and that only a centrist Republican can hold the seat given the lean of the district and the state -- the GOP holds only 3 seats (including McHugh's) out of New York's 29 total.
Despite the battle on the right, Democrats are not taking a win to the bank. Republicans still hold a registration edge in the district, and that Siena poll shows Owens only barely ahead.
"I think overconfidence would be misplaced here," Maffei said. "This is going to go right down to the wire."
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