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Associated Press/Photo by Heather Ainsworth

'A little sideways'

Campaign 2009 | Conservative insurgency comes up short in New York's 23rd House District

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

At a Nov. 2 Doug Hoffman rally in New York's 23rd Congressional District, country singer John Rich was franker than the man he was campaigning for, drawling to the small but roaring crowd that he wasn't running for office so he didn't have to be polite.

"Nancy Pelosi feels like the Wicked Witch of the West riding around on a broom. Someone needs to drop a house on her," he said between guitar strums, on a stage at an exhibition hall at the fairgrounds in Watertown, N.Y. Then, making a pun on the name of Hoffman's former opponent, Dede Scozzafava: "I'm a little sideways with the Republican Party putting Dede Schizophrenic out there."

The Hoffman campaign became a battle cry for anyone "a little sideways with the Republican party," from tea party activists to national leaders, for social conservatives and fiscal con­servatives alike. Like other 2009 races, it became bigger than the candidate himself-in this case a warning to the Republican Party to shun "Republicans in Name Only."

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While the warning came through, the outcome gave the district its first Democratic congressman since 1852. Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate, lost the race with 45 percent of the vote to Democrat Bill Owens' 49.3 percent. Scozzafava, the liberal Republican who dropped out of the race, still took 5.5 percent.

Local GOP leaders chose Scozzafava, an assemblywoman who supported gay marriage and received the Margaret Sanger award from Planned Parenthood, to run in the special election to replace former Rep. John McHugh, whom Obama appointed as Secretary of the Army. Hoffman ran as the more conservative, third-party choice and saw endorsements-from the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson, the National Organization for Marriage, and others-stream in, along with voters and cash.

On the day Palin endorsed him, Hoffman raised $116,000. The Club for Growth spent over $1 million, including bundled member donations, on the Hoffman campaign.

Newt Gingrich became one of the few prominent Republicans to endorse Scozzafava and stand by her, saying it wasn't appropriate for national leaders to dictate local politics and that Scozzafava was "adequately con­servative" for upstate New York.

Then Scozzafava abruptly withdrew from the race on Oct. 31 and endorsed Owens-a move that Hoffman supporters said proved that she was more liberal than the Democrat himself. The last pre-election Siena poll showed Hoffman ahead with 41 percent to Owens' 36 percent, with the number of undecided voters doubled to 18 percent.

While abortion and gay marriage got scarce mention at the Nov. 2 rally, those issues drew both supporters and endorsers. A National Organization for Marriage (NOM) poll found that half of Hoffman's supporters said Scozzafava's support for same-sex marriage was a factor in their decision not to support her. NOM spent over $110,000 on Hoffman and sent over 160,000 pieces of mail to voters. Susan B. Anthony, a pro-life group, sent nine of its staff members to the district and recruited 250 volunteers to pass out over 121,000 pieces of candidate comparison literature.

Those social values drew Connie Maxon, wearing a blue pro-life T-shirt that read, "Given a choice, they'd want a chance," to the Hoffman rally. The bashing-the "Dede Schizophrenic"-bothered her: "Spinning it way over to the extreme right is not going to help our cause." She stressed that the race was a local matter and that Hoffman wasn't crowned by Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck but was running in response to his district's needs.

Conservatives still hailed Hoffman's defeat as a clear warning to Republican Party leadership. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony list, said it told the GOP, "Make sure you do an analysis of your base before you choose candidates. . . . What does the social conservative base think of this candidate we're getting ready to endorse? What does the fiscal conservative base think of this candidate we're getting ready to endorse?"

Thanks to Hoffman, she said, "I think there will be a different type of caution at the RNC . . . the kind of caution we would like to see."

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