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NY-23 Lives!

Lessons from the recent race in this congressional district.

2:42 PM, Jan 22, 2010 • By KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON
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Geographically New York’s 23rd is known as one of the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi, and the mountains and lakes of the North Country are renowned for their magnificence. But in terms of national politics the district was strictly a backwater—until last November’s special election briefly made it the center of the political universe. 

NY-23 Lives!

Then Democrat Bill Owens edged Conservative Doug Hoffman—after liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava dropped out of the race and endorsed the Democrat just days before the election.

Since November 4, however, events have transpired that will keep the national political spotlight shining on NY-23 in 2010.

A strong case can be made that ObamaCare passed the House because of Bill Owens. On the day he was sworn in (and the day national health care passed the House by a mere five votes), President Obama stood before Congressional Democrats and pointed to Bill Owens (seated on the gathering’s front row) as a symbol of how Democrats can win by supporting such progressive legislation. 

Ironically, that vote produced one of the most noted newspaper headlines of the year when the Gouverneur Times declared:  “Owens Breaks 4 Campaign Promises in First Hour in Congress.”

Technically, that headline would prove to be in error.  But it is true that for most of the campaign Owens had made clear he opposed major provisions of the health reform bill—especially the public option.  With Scozzafava out of the race, and his victory dependent on massive union support flowing from outside the North Country, however, Owens did indicate support for a national health care bill in the last days of the campaign. 

Before the 2010 campaign is over, Owens may wish his only problem is that headline about broken campaign promises.

The U.S. Senate vote in nearby Massachusetts where opposition to health care “reform” was the key to a stunning Republican victory indicates real political peril for the congressman responsible for ObamaCare passing the House. 

Meanwhile, there are convincing indications that Owens’s most likely opponent will be Doug Hoffman who became a national conservative icon when he emerged as a serious opponent to Owens and Scozzafava last fall.

A John McLaughlin poll of likely GOP primary voters in the 23rd conducted earlier this month shows they strongly favor Hoffman to be the Republican nominee this fall—by large margins over others who have indicated interest in the race. Seventy-four percent of district Republicans believe Hoffman deserves the GOP nomination this fall, and 71 percent say that running on both the Republican and Conservative party lines he can beat Owens. 

The poll also has bad news for Assemblyman Will Barclay and Wall Street investment banker Matt Doheny.  Nearly 70 percent of these voters favored a “businessman” (i.e. Hoffman) as opposed to 11 percent who preferred a “current assemblyman” and a minuscule 2 percent who wanted a “Wall Street investment banker.” There was more bad news for Barclay and Doheny, who are pro-choice.  Even more district Republicans polled are pro-life (64 percent) than consider themselves conservative (62 percent).

That Barclay polled so poorly is surprising considering he ran a high-profile if losing campaign for the state senate only a couple of years ago.  No doubt because of that campaign Barclay was known to nearly 75 percent of those polled.   

That Hoffman has emerged with such solid Republican support in the 23rd will come as a surprise to some who followed the election results through the national media. Scozzafava emerged as a victim among national liberals—she was even a guest on "Face the Nation" shortly after the election. In truth, it was the House Republican leadership that emerged from the campaign with egg on their faces.  Washington-based GOP fundraising committees poured more than a million dollars into the district on behalf of one of the New York Assembly’s most liberal members who easily was eclipsed by the Hoffman campaign.

Although Scozzafava’s surprising 11th-hour withdrawal and her endorsement of Owens made Hoffman the victim of a political perfect storm—most observers believe he would have won a three-way race—his supporters can make the case that his electoral performance actually was rather extraordinary. No one can recall a minor-party Congressional candidate in New York ever winning such a high percentage of the vote as Hoffman, hidden on row D of a crowded ballot.

Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long has made a point to reach out to Republican leaders in the 23rd, making the case that a unified front can beat Owens this fall. Some who do not know Long were surprised that the party chief so firmly insisted that the Conservative party line was Hoffman’s for the asking this year.  (That is before the McLaughlin polls showed Hoffman so popular.) Hoffman is by no means a polished speaker, and there are those who thought Long would be open to a more conventional political choice.  (Hoffman, an accountant who along with his children, has a number of small businesses insists Congress needs more members who can read balance sheets as opposed to professional politicians who can give speeches.)

Others hope a longer campaign will provide the opportunity to tell Hoffman’s remarkable personal story.  He and his four siblings were raised by a single mother in Saranac Lake, and from childhood he worked at demanding jobs to help provide for the family.  He went on to a distinguished accounting career (at age 27 he was the corporate controller of the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee.)  Hoffman is most impressive sitting around a table talking with friends—or strangers.

Having ObamaCare as a major issue should also work to Hoffman’s advantage, if indeed national health care becomes the focus of the campaign.  To understand what Democrats are proposing with national health care, a lifetime in accounting could prove to be a political asset.

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson is a former editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest.

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