At the Lewis County GOP dinner at the Elks Lodge, Republican congressional candidate Dede Scozzafava sounds defensive and even a little bit angry. "Some of us in the room might have a disagreement about a couple of my issues," she says to the 100 or so Republicans at the dinner. "I believe they're individual choice issues. I believe those are conservative values. I don't think government belongs in individual lives. I think those are personal decisions that need to be made. I think that's conservatism."
To hear Scozzafava tell it, her support for gay marriage and taxpayer-funded abortion-on-demand (the couple of issues that she isn't naming) are the only things a Republican might disagree with her about. But she leans left on plenty of other issues, too. She supported the $787 billion stimulus package, favors card-check (which would do away with secret-ballot union elections), and won't say how she'd vote on the House Democrats' health care bill. Her liberalism has created an opening in this Republican-leaning district for the grassroots insurgency of conservative Doug Hoffman. A Siena poll released on October 15 showed Hoffman trailing Scozzafava 23 to 29 percent, and internal polls have them even. But both trail Democrat Bill Owens (who garnered 33 percent in the Siena poll) in the race to succeed John McHugh in New York's 23rd congressional district--which stretches from Lake Ontario to Vermont on the Canadian border. McHugh vacated the seat (held by Republicans continuously since 1871) this fall after being confirmed as Obama's Army secretary.
Scozzafava's problems as a candidate aren't limited to ideology. She simply rubs people the wrong way. The Siena poll reported that--by a 16-point margin--voters who had seen her commercials found that the ads made "them less likely to support her." "Let me tell you something," Scozzafava says at the conclusion of her seven-minute speech at the Elks Lodge. "The best revenge in all of this--because it's been ugly and nasty, my family has been personally attacked, I've been attacked, there's been lies--that the best revenge in the end is to win."
I experienced firsthand Scozza-fava's politics of personal revenge at the Elks Lodge event. After I persisted in asking her questions about card-check, taxpayer-funding of abortion, and whether her pledge not to raise taxes meant she'd vote against any health care bill that raised taxes, her husband--a local union boss--called the police.
Officer Brandi Groman showed up in a squad car with its lights flashing minutes later. "Maybe we do things a little differently here, but you know, persistence in that area, you scared the candidate a little bit," Officer Groman told me, as she took down my name, date of birth, and home address.
"[Scozzafava] got startled, that's all," she added. "It's not like you're in any trouble."
The next day, the Scozzafava campaign released a statement claiming that I "repeatedly screamed questions (in-your-face-style)" at the candidate. I didn't. The Associated Press asked to listen to my tape of the event and confirmed my side: "The reporter didn't raise his voice, but repeated his unanswered questions several times."
After this bizarre incident, George Joseph, Republican party chairman of Oneida county, which is part of the sprawling 23rd congressional district, told a conservative website that Scozzafava would almost certainly lose on November 3. The race had "turned into a tainted runaway election," Joseph said. "I wasn't sold on Dede from the beginning."
Those not inclined to vote for a liberal Democrat or a liberal Republican are left with Doug Hoffman, a soft-spoken, sober-minded certified public accountant and Army National Guard veteran. Outside a local NPR station in Oneida after wrapping up an appearance on October 20, the self-described Reagan Republican tells me: "I never wanted to be a politician. I never had any desire for it. I probably had more disdain for it than anything." Hoffman, who was passed over for the GOP nomination by local party bosses, says he's in the race because he's fed up with excessive taxes, spending, and government regulations.
"It shouldn't take a CPA to go to Washington and explain to people you can't spend money you don't have," he says. "But, on the other hand, maybe it does, and so that's why I'm here." A fiscal and social conservative, he says the stimulus package hasn't worked and would like to see some of the money redirected to job credits and incentives for small businesses.
Later in the day, Hoffman attends a local Rotary Club luncheon with about 60 people. "If you're looking for a smooth-talking fast-talking politician," he says, "I'm not your man." True enough. His is not an electrifying stump speech--NPR is a much better medium for him--but he does effectively explain the issues he's running on: opposition to card-check and cap and trade, a free-market approach to health care reform, and support for the war in Afghanistan. His campaign commercials tout his pro-life stance (the outgoing McHugh was solidly pro-life), but on the stump Hoffman doesn't usually bring up social issues.
Though Hoffman appears an attractive and viable alternative to Scozzafava--and one with the backing of influential conservatives like Fred Thompson and Sarah Palin and seemingly every grassroots political action committee--most of the Washington GOP establishment is backing the official Republican candidate. The RNC and National Republican Campaign Committee are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on her campaign, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich made the case for Scozzafava on a radio program last Thursday:
I would say to every Republican: You have a chance to elect somebody who has signed the no tax pledge. She's endorsed by the National Rifle Association. She is opposed to cap and trade and energy taxes. She is opposed to the Obama health plan, and, she will vote against Nancy Pelosi as speaker.
The problem with Gingrich's argument is that Scozzafava actually waffles on many of these issues. She won't say if her no-taxes pledge means she'd oppose a health care bill that raises taxes. She refuses, in fact, to say how she'd vote on a comprehensive health care bill. And this summer her husband was in discussions with Democratic leaders about her potentially running as a Democrat for the seat she is now seeking as a Republican. She may be the only candidate ever endorsed by both Newt Gingrich and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the leftist website Daily Kos. He called her "actually the most liberal candidate in the race" and said, "It's official, I'm rooting for the Republican to win."
It's not clear why Republicans--or Democrats--would want her in their caucus. Last week, she held a horribly stage-managed campaign event outside of Doug Hoffman's office that was all about calling for more debates, even though she was the one who had declined Hoffman's offers to debate. Surrounded by sign-waving Hoffman supporters, the event was another embarrassment for Scozzafava and her supporters.
The race remains tight and the split between Scozzafava and Hoffman could very well deliver the seat to Owens--but maybe only for a year. Hoffman tells me he's "absolutely" committed to running for the seat in 2010 no matter who wins. "Depending on who wins" on November 3, he says, "I will run in the Republican primary and let the voters decide who's the true Republican for this district, or I will run as the only Republican."
John McCormack is deputy online editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.