NY-23: What to Watch Tonight

The special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District is finally here. And while the conventional storyline in this race has changed so many times — from the appointment of the incumbent as Secretary of the Army to Dede Scozzafava’s suspension of her campaign — a final result is nearly unpredictable.

While we watch tonight, there are a few keys to the result that we should look for.

The 23rd district — the largest in the state — contains all or portions of 11 different counties. About 75% of the district’s 2008 electorate came from five counties (Clinton, Jefferson, Madison, Oswego and Saint Lawrence). The results in those five areas will likely determine tonight’s winner.

Start with Clinton and St. Lawrence Counties, which accounted for nearly 30% of the district’s vote in 2008 and were won by Barack Obama by 23% and 17% respectively. In addition to being the district’s Democratic stronghold, Clinton County is the home base of Democrat Bill Owens, who resides in Plattsburgh. Expect Owens to win here, but his ability to maximize his margin of victory is crucial. A strong Doug Hoffman performance in Clinton or an above average performance by Scozzafava could be an early omen of a long night for Democrats.

Special attention should also be paid to Saint Lawrence County — where Scozzafava lives.  It’s the area she represented in the State Assembly and contains the town of Gouverneur, where she previously served as mayor.  Remember that Scozzafava’s name will remain on the ballot and many absentee ballots would have already been mailed by the time she announced the suspension of her campaign last Saturday. Saint Lawrence is one area where Scozzafava could still receive a considerable percentage of the vote and hurt Owens. If Hoffman can win 30-35% of the vote here (McCain won 41% last November) and Scozzafava is even in double digits, Owens could lose one of his best chances to run up his vote total.

The Republican-leaning counter to Clinton and Saint Lawrence is Jefferson County, which made up roughly 15% of the electorate in 2008, but where Republicans have seen a gradual decline in recent cycles. The GOP edge in voter registration is down nearly 3,000 from four years ago and John McCain’s 5 point margin of victory in 2008 was a decline from George W. Bush’s 12 point win in 2004. Still, Jefferson is the single largest lean-Republican county in the district and a must-win for Hoffman. John McHugh won the county by 54 points last November, a sign that the Republican brand can still win convincingly here, but also that Scozzafava’s more moderate McHugh-like brand of politics could make an impact and potentially pull votes away from Hoffman.

Two swing counties to watch are Madison and Oswego. Together they make up roughly 30% of the district and both flipped from supporting Bush in 2004 to narrowly backing Obama in 2008. But Republicans have about a 22,000 voter edge in registration between the two counties and Hoffman should be able to win both. Just as in Jefferson County, the margin of victory — and the performance of Scozzafava — will be the key.

The district’s remaining counties are a mixture of leaning Republican and Democrat, although Essex County, where Hoffman resides in Lake Placid, should be interesting. Obama won here by a 56-43 margin in 2008, but Hoffman’s ability to flip the county could make a difference in a close race.

One additional dynamic many political observers will be watching: what does this election say about Barack Obama? Obama won the 23rd district last November by a 52-47 margin. So a Hoffman win would send a message to Washington and both political parties that the American people are ready for change, although not the kind of change Obama and Washington Democrats represent. But more specifically, if Hoffman can win not only be maximizing his vote in Republican areas, but by outperforming Obama in counties like Clinton, Saint Lawrence, Madison and Oswego, that could send a message that would worry congressional Democrats all next year.