The Blog

A Defeat Made in Washington

Why the James Buckley scenario didn't quite pan out.

11:00 PM, Nov 3, 2009 • By KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On Election Day, veteran conservative leader David Keene was regaling friends with the story of how the Nixon White House manipulated a split in liberal opinion to help elect James Buckley to the U.S. Senate from New York.

Left-wing support for liberal Republican Charles Goodell was shifting to Democrat Richard Ottinger when Vice President Spiro Agnew was trotted out to attack Goodell as the "Christine Jorgensen [the notorious sex-change figure of the time] of the Republican party." Aghast at the Agnew ridicule of one of their own, Goodell's liberal supporters rallied to him, and Buckley was able to win the three-way race with 39 percent of the vote.

Little did Keene's friends realize that he was explaining why Conservative party nominee Doug Hoffman was about to lose his race for the New York 23rd district House seat.

On the Saturday before the election, Hoffman enjoyed a clear lead over liberal Republican Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava and Democrat Bill Owens--despite the infusion of massive amounts of official Republican and Democrat funds on behalf of the leading party candidates.

The National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee alone had spent close to $900,000 on Scozzafava's behalf as clueless House GOP leaders clung to her candidacy. Even after the Club for Growth and conservative media figures had turned the Hoffman campaign into a national crusade, Newt Gingrich weighed in for Scozzafava, in an exercise that will damage if not end his Republican presidential nomination hopes.

Meanwhile, Democrats, with cash on hand from a massive fundraiser by President Obama himself, had spent even more on Owens.

When Scozzafava dropped out of the race on Saturday, most believed Hoffman could still hold his lead. Hoffman may have campaigned like the certified public accountant he is, but his obviously sincere belief that Washington needed to be changed had turned him into a folk hero. Then Sunday, Scozzafava, her official Republican money spent, let it be known she was supporting Owens. Big time.

Her allies at the Watertown Daily Times swung into gear for Owens. So too did Scozzafava's union-organizer husband. As one conservative pro explained, when it comes to the political ground game, unions still can out-rush anti-abortion activists.

(This was the same union-organizer husband who had called the cops on THE WEEKLY STANDARD's John McCormack, when he dared ask Assemblywoman Scozzafava her opinion of federal funding of abortion by Obamacare.)

In Scozzafava's home county of St. Lawrence, Owens crushed Hoffman. In traditionally Republican Jefferson County (Watertown), Owens edged Hoffman. In the end, the candidate financed by official Republican Washington made sure the Democrat would win the race.

In unofficial results, Owens won 49 percent of the vote, beating Hoffman by four percent. Scozzafava, whose name remained on the ballot, won six percent.

Despite huge GOP victories in southern New York, there would be no Jim Buckley-like victory in the North Country. Unlike in 1970, Republicans in Washington made sure of that.

Kenneth Tomlinson is a former editor in chief of Reader's Digest.