With Republicans taking the two governorships up in New Jersey and Virginia , the only sad saga for conservatives last night was, of course, the special U.S. House election in New York’s 23rd District. With liberal Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava abandoning her campaign Saturday and state and national GOPers rallying to Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman, small-c conservatives nationally had worked for and hoped for a win by the insurgent candidate.
“Voters in the 23rd District are against the Pelosi agenda,” Hoffman told me in a phone interview a few hours before the polls closed,” My election is going to show that average people can stand up when they face more government, more regulation, and higher taxes.”
But it was not to be. With near-final returns in by midnight, Democrat Bill Owens had edged Hoffman by a margin of 48% to 46%, with the remaining 6% going to State Assemblywoman Scozzafava (who, while suspending her campaign, remained on the ballot lines of the GOP and the New York Independence Party). In a ten-county district that has sent Republicans to Congress without interruption since 1870, the Obama-backed Owens edged Hoffman by about 5,000 votes, with 10,000 absentee ballots remaining to be counted (although the Hoffman campaign told me last night they don’t expect this will change the outcome).
So now the questions start. Just how could Hoffman lose? With conservatives from former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson to ’08 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin to fifteen Republican House Members weighing in for Hoffman early, the CPA and Conservative hopeful was winning support that would eventually convince Republican nominee Scozzafava to call it quits. Hoffman pumped” $100,000 into the race, raised money from all fifty states (Palin’s endorsement brought in another six figures in donations), and had volunteers from local GOP committees as well as tea party activists who flew into the district to canvass over the weekend.
By Monday, most polls showed Hoffman with a healthy lead over lawyer and Air Force veteran Owens and he seemed on his way to becoming the first House Member since 1970 elected as neither a Democrat nor Republican. But he didn’t win.
Unions, Money and Dede Did Doug In
“We had the volunteers all right, but they had the money and the paid operatives,” a Hoffman campaigner who requested anonymity told me Tuesday night, as I could hear his candidate conceding defeat in the background. “The unions — the Service Employees [International Union] — and ACORN, I’m pretty sure — had their people all up here in force. And it makes a difference when you have hired guns.”
There is strong circumstantial evidence that ACORN was involved with Owens’ campaign. When Republican Rep. John McHugh (R.-NY) resigned his seat to become secretary of the army and Republicans selected Scozzafava to run in the special election, angry conservatives pointed out that she had run for the Assembly several times with the ballot line of the Working Families Party — “a wholly-owned subsidiary of ACORN,” according to Conservative Party State Chairman Mike Long. In the House race, however, the Working Families Party gave its ballot line to Owens.
Although amounts won’t be available for weeks, there is a case to be made that Owens outraised Hoffman, whose campaign was fueled almost exclusively small donations.
“There were Owens commercials on Sunday night during the World Series [between the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies],” historian and upstate New Yorker David Pietrusza told me, “and that’s a pretty expensive time buy.” He noted that the TV spots strongly attacked Hoffman for “being supported by a group that wants to privatize Social Security” — an obvious reference to an independent expenditure on Hoffman’s behalf by the Club for Growth.
In exiting the race and freeing fellow Republicans to endorse Hoffman, the pro-abortion, pro-card check, pro-gay marriage Scozzafava actually endorsed Democrat Owens herself. As her former press secretary Matt Burns told me the day after she crossed party lines, “I told Dede after we issued her statement [suspending the campaign] and she was getting all this praise [from Republicans] for being gracious that the one thing she could do that was harmful was endorse Owens. She didn’t say anything — and that’s what she did.” (Burns himself put out a statement supporting Hoffman; several sources familiar with the State Capitol insisted that Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had promised Scozzafava something for “batting for the other side” her move and she was likely to become a Democrat herself in a matter of days).
Hoffman’s Message Lives On
“Right Wing Fringe Fails GOP” blared the headline of a press release from the pro-abortion Republicans for Choice group shortly after the returns from NY-23 came in. The story is one that will be heard repeatedly, for sure: that while supporters of the Hoffman — pro-life, pro-marriage, and against federal bailouts — drove the “moderate” Scozzafava out of the race, they could not win in a general election.
As much as it will be recited over and over, it’s moonshine. In going the difficult route as a third-party candidate, Hoffman generated funds, volunteers, and enthusiasm for his message of fiscal and cultural conservatism. That he came as close as he did running as an insurgent is an accomplishment in itself.
And Scozzafava as mainstream or “moderate” doesn’t hold water. The positions she took — pro-abortion, same sex marriage, for labor’s cherished “card check,” and in favor of stimulus money — are not in sync with most Republicans. Moreover, the very means by which she was nominated was a major reason for the movement to Hoffman: a group of ten county GOP chairmen, one from each county in the district, selected her as the nominee; in so doing, some clearly defied their own committee’s members who wanted other candidates and then turned to Hoffman). Aware of this, State GOP Chairman Ed Cox has signaled the party will change to a means of picking nominees in special elections that is more open to the grass roots.
Forewarned is forearmed: in losing Tuesday, Doug Hoffman energized a movement that will live and work and campaign in 2010, and beyond.