Local Issues, Not Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck, Decided Upstate New York’s 23rd Congressional Race

U.S. Rep. Bill Owens (D-NY) (L) poses for photographers with Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (R) as (2nd L to 5th L) Owens' granddaughter Caroline Antonipillai, wife Jane, son Brendan and daughter Jenna look on during a mock swearing in November 6, 2009 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Owens won the special election for seat that was vacated by John McHugh.

U.S. Rep. Bill Owens (D-NY) (L) poses for photographers with Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (R) as (2nd L to 5th L) Owens' granddaughter Caroline Antonipillai, wife Jane, son Brendan and daughter Jenna look on during a mock swearing in November 6, 2009 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Owens won the special election for seat that was vacated by John McHugh.

ALBANY – Despite the national attention lavished on New York’s 23rd Congressional District, Democrats won a surprise victory because of local concerns over jobs, the trashing of an assemblywoman by outsiders and Republican feuding, experts said.

Democrat Bill Owens wooed voters with talk of dairy farms and small businesses, the analysts noted, while Conservative Doug Hoffman touted endorsements from right-wing media personalities such as Fox’s Glenn Beck and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Others suggested Hoffman’s vague positions on improvements to the St. Lawrence Seaway, Fort Drum Army base and other regional assets also hurt him.

Analysts said the state Conservative Party’s influence over the GOP’s future direction would be diminished because while Hoffman drove moderate Republican Assemb. Dierdre Scozzafava from the field, he couldn’t clinch the House seat.

“I don’t see this helping Conservatives that much in New York,” said Jack McGuire, a politics professor at SUNY Potsdam. “This is one election and it was decided on local issues. This isn’t a bellwether for any major tidal shift.”

McGuire and others who live in the 11-county district hugging the Canadian border said the GOP’s warring factions handed the election to Owens. He beat Hoffman, 49.4 percent to 45.1 percent with 95 percent of precincts reporting. Scozzafava received 5.5 percent.

Conservatives backed Hoffman, saying Scozzafava had strayed from party values by supporting abortion rights, gay marriage and labor unions. “If they hadn’t gotten involved, we’d be talking about Congresswoman Scozzafava,” McGuire said.

Speaking after Hoffman’s defeat Tuesday night, Conservative Party chairman Michael Long said he had no regrets, blaming both Republican county chairmen for tapping Scozzafava and her endorsement of Owens upon bowing out.

Ed Cox, head of the state Republican Committee, echoed these sentiments. No Republican has won statewide office recently without Conservative backing.

Cox downplayed rumored friction between the parties. “[Long] doesn’t want to be a spoiler. . . . We are in sync,” Cox said.

As political strategists from the White House to Capitol Hill attempted to derive national implications from the 23rd race, some in New York questioned the relevance, saying the result was a backlash against the money and campaign workers streaming in from elsewhere.

“The saturation advertising was pretty vicious, particularly about Dede [Scozzafava],” said Calvin F. Exoo, a government professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton. “Voters probably were turned off and some decided to send a message by voting for Owens.”

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) helped convince Scozzafava to throw her support to Owens last weekend. He also recruited Owens for the House. Israel said the race was about the economy, not political ideology.

“In the 23rd, as on Long Island, people want results,” Israel said. “They want their problems solved.”

James T. Madore
Newsday

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