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Posted at 4:01 PM ET, 02/25/2011

Why NY-26 (probably) won't be another GOP civil war

By Rachel Weiner

New York Republican David Bellavia is moving towards a third-party candidacy in the special election to replace former Rep. Chris Lee (R), a move that could divide Republican voters and imperil Republicans chances of keeping hold of the seat.

Some tea party activists are lining up behind Bellavia, an Iraq War veteran, saying that the Republican county chairs moved too quickly when they picked Assemblywoman Jane Corwin as their nominee. Bellavia is hoping to get the Conservative Party's endorsement; while a local chapter has endorsed Corwin, the state-wide party has not yet decided.

If the situation seems familiar -- and dangerous -- for Republicans, it should.

In New York, there are six lines on the ballot; any party that gets at least 50,000 votes in the last gubernatorial election gets a line. Candidates can appear on multiple lines, so Republicans and Democrats work to get the endorsement of smaller parties. When those parties break off and endorse their own candidates, it can cost a presumed frontrunner his or her seat.

In a 2009 special election to replace Rep. John McHugh in New York's 23rd district, the Conservative Party nominated their own candidate -- Doug Hoffman -- out of a belief that the Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava was not sufficiently conservative. Scozzafava ultimately withdrew from the race and backed Democrat Bill Owens. Owens ended up winning a seat that had been in Republican hands since the 1870s.

But the similarities between Corwin and Scozzafava don't go all that deep.

To begin with, Corwin is not Scozzafava, who was ranked as the most liberal member of the state Assembly. The liberal blog DailyKos actually endorsed Scozzafava over Owens, saying she "is to the left of most Democrats on social issues." (Owens was a registered independent and moderate who made many liberal Democrats wary.)

Corwin, on the other hand, is the second-most conservative member of the Assembly, based on the Conservative Party's own ratings. While she's a relatively new player in state politics, most people like what they see. On Thursday, she sent a letter to Conservative Party leaders asking for their endorsement.

Even though registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in the 23rd district, it's not uniformly red -- voters there went for President Obama by a very slim margin in 2008.

The 26th district, on the other hand, went for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Democrats, who have yet to pick a candidate for this seat, are still not sure it's even worth investing resources in the race.

There is one issue where Corwin is more moderate: abortion. According to her responses on a 2008 VoteSmart questionnaire, she thinks abortion should be legal in the first trimester of pregnancy -- a position that might not sit well with conservative voters.

"We feel that David being a pro-life candidate, the only pro-life candidate, the Conservative Party's life and foundations are very important," Bellavia's spokesperson told a local paper.

Conservative Party leaders don't seem to think Corwin's abortion position is a major issue. "I'm a pro-life guy, but I don't have any lines in the sand," said Erie County Conservative Party Chairman Ralph Lorigo.

Michael Long, head of the state Conservative Party, said that in conversations with Corwin she was "correct" on most abortion-related issues, including opposing federal funding of abortion and funding for Planned Parenthood. "David got in the race a little bit late,"added Long.

If Bellavia did not get the Conservative Party nod, he could still qualify for the ballot by collecting 3,500 signatures within 12 days of the governor's proclamation of the date of the special election. That's not an insurmountable obstacle, but the bid would not be as powerful as one coming from one of the established third-party lines, which wield considerable influence in New York.

It's possible that Corwin-skeptics could dig up enough dirt on the candidate to turn off conservatives. Just yesterday, it came out that Corwin had donated to Scozzafava's campaign. Still, Corwin is no Scozzafava... yet.

By Rachel Weiner  | February 25, 2011; 4:01 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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