Most of the news from New York’s 23rd U.S. House District last week focused on the surprise decision of Democratic State Sen. Darrell Aubertine not to run for the soon-to-be vacant seat of Republican Rep. John M. McHugh, who will shortly resign to become President Obama’s secretary of the army.
But there was also a firestorm among Republicans in the district, which stretches from Oswego to Lake Champlain and has been held by the GOP since the Civil War. With the exit of nine-termer McHugh (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 74%) necessitating a special election later this year, local GOPers made a controversial choice as their candidate in that race: State Assemblywoman DeDe Scozzafava of St. Lawrence County, who is pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, and liberal on just about everything else, according to the New York State Conservative Party.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to dub Scozzafava an “Obama Republican.” According to the Conservative Party’s most recent ratings of state legislators, she scores 15 on a scale of 100 — just a bit below the 10% scored by Assembly Speaker and Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver.
There was also controversy swirling around the avenue in which local party leaders selected Scozzafaza to run in the special election (the date of which has not yet been determined). The Republican nominee was selected in a field of nine candidates at a closed-door meeting of the party chairmen from the eleven counties in the 23rd.
Although state election law does not provide for a primary mechanism, there was increasing criticism among grass-roots activists that this exclusive system blocks input from the party mainstream and that the nominee of the county chairmen is not necessarily the choice of activists. (After a similar system led to the nomination of Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco for the 20th District seat of then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand after she was appointed to the Senate earlier this year, he went on to lose the special election to Democrat Scott Murphy.).
New York is one of the few states in which candidates can appear on several different ballot lines and have the aggregate votes counted for them. Row D, the ballot line of the 47-year-old Conservative Party, has long been crucial to the victory of Republicans from statehouse to courthouse.
But Scozzafava won’t be getting it. State Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long told reporters that her nomination by the Republicans “creates a problem for the Conservatives.” Last week, all signs were strong that the Conservatives would give their nomination to James Kelly of Wilmington, retired New York City detective and past member of the Conservative Party’s state executive committee.
“Scozzafaza’s nomination is going to present a particular problem for [Republican National Chairman] Michael Steele,” Kelly told me, “Is the national party going to field someone who agrees with Barack Obama more than the Republican activists in the 23rd District in a special election that is sure to draw national attention?”
While there are questions about whether Kelly can raise the money and have the troops to be a contender, it is inarguable that he will be the lone right-of-center candidate in a contest with two liberals. With Aubertine out, Democrats are talking about a number of second-tier contenders, among them former State Attorney General John T. Sullivan, former U.S. Attorney Daniel French, State Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, and Plattsburg lawyer William Owens.