New York House race lays bare Republican infighting

Many national conservative figures are supporting the Conservative Party's Doug Hoffman in a New York special election. Republican Dede Scozzafava is seen as too liberal.

By , Staff writer

One week before Election Day, the special election to fill a vacant House seat in New York’s North Country is the buzz of the political world.

The three-way race to fill New York’s 23rd congressional district seat – pitting a Republican, a Democrat, and a Conservative against one another – is too close to call.

But it’s conceivable the Republican – moderate Dede Scozzafava – could come in third, as national conservative figures like Sarah Palin and Fred Thompson (and Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh) have bucked the establishment and thrown their support behind the soft-spoken Conservative Party alternative, Doug Hoffman.

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It’s also entirely possible the Democrat, lawyer Bill Owens, could eke out a victory amid the Republican infighting. He would be the first Democrat to win that district in 140 years.

The surest bet is that Ms. Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman, will not win. The Democrats have clearly come to that conclusion. Their latest attack ad just goes after Mr. Hoffman and ignores Scozzafava.

How could the Republican Party have avoided this fiasco? Contrary to popular belief, Scozzafava was not nominated in a primary. She was chosen, behind closed doors, by the GOP county chairs of that district, standard operating procedure for special House races in New York. The seat became vacant after President Obama tapped NY-23’s congressman, Republican John McHugh, to be Secretary of the Army.

Some Republicans believe the embarrassment of the party’s national food fight over NY-23 will spur the New York GOP to try to change the nominating process.

“If Hoffman beats Dede or the Democrat wins, you will see a major effort to change the nomination process in vacancies,” says John Gizzi, political editor of the conservative weekly, Human Events.

Mr. Gizzi notes that if Mr. Owens wins NY-23, it will be the second time this year that the “behind closed doors” selection process ends up with a Democrat winning a special House election in New York. NY-20 became open when Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) was tapped to fill the Senate seat vacated when Hillary Rodham Clinton became Secretary of State. Senator Gillibrand is a moderate Democrat, who had wrested her House seat away from the GOP in 2006.

Republicans believed they had a shot at winning it back. The local county GOP chairs selected the minority leader of the New York State Assembly, Jim Tedisco. He lost to Democrat Scott Murphy in the April vote.

One Republican who was discussed as a possible nominee for NY-20 is former assemblyman and 2006 GOP gubernatorial nominee John Faso. In an interview, Mr. Faso said he agrees that the situation in NY-23 points to the need for reconsideration of how nominees are chosen for special elections, but he does not see New York passing a law to switch to a primary system.

“It would be viewed as an unnecessary expense,” Mr. Faso says. “The state is broke. So are the local governments.” The problem, he adds, is that “the nomination process right now is disconnected from what it takes to get someone elected. That means political strategy and money.”

In NY-20, the Democrats picked “someone with no connection to the district, but who was a fresh face, had some business experience, and was presentable,” Faso says. “And he had no record to shoot at.”

Still, Faso defends the selection of Scozzafava in NY-23. “She was relatively well-known to the chairs and had a strong base of support from being in the assembly,” he says. “One of the chairs is a colleague of hers in the assembly. She was much more familiar to them. It was not an illogical choice from that perspective at all. “

Scozzafava’s moderate views seemed to fit with her district, which Obama narrowly won in 2008. Former Congressman McHugh was a moderate. But she ran into the buzzsaw of the GOP’s deep internal divisions, as well as the energy of the independent antitax “tea party” movement.

Thus, she was exposed on key issues. She favors abortion rights and gay marriage. And, more important, her moderate positions on economic matters gave conservatives, including the activist Club for Growth, a juicy target. The only major Republican establishment figure in her corner is former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

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