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Doug Hoffman (Associated Press/Photo by Seth Wenig)

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Politics | Despite losing New York's 23rd District congressional race, social conservatives press on with their agenda

NEW YORK-The congressional race for New York's 23rd District was one of last night's few conservative defeats. The Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman-backed by a litany of national conservatives who declared his campaign a warning to the GOP to stop nominating liberal Republicans-lost to Democrat Bill Owens. With 88 percent of the precincts reporting, Owens received 49 percent of the vote, Hoffman 46 percent, and Republican Dede Scozzafava, who withdrew from the race over the weekend, 6 percent.

Social conservatives, undaunted by the loss of a historically Republican district, said they still achieved their purpose of sending a message to the GOP.

Local party leaders chose Scozzafava as the Republican nominee in a race to replace John McHugh, a Republican whom Obama appointed as secretary of the Army. Scozzafava, despite signing a no-tax pledge and getting an endorsement from the National Rifle Association, supported same-sex marriage and was the recipient of the Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood. Hoffman, a businessman and millionaire, ran against Scozzafava as the more conservative, third-party alternative.

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The first polls during the campaign showed Scozzafava ahead of Owens by 10 points, with Owens nearly tied with Hoffman. Then national conservative leaders took notice and Hoffman received a slew of endorsements from conservative leaders and organizations: Club for Growth, the Susan B. Anthony List, the National Organization for Marriage, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former presidential candidate Fred Thompson, and others.

After Hoffman swiftly closed the polling and fundraising gap, Scozzafava-hemorrhaging supporters and cash-dropped out of the race and then, in a move that conservatives said proved the extent of her liberal views, endorsed Owens. The last polls showed Hoffman with a narrow lead but with large margins of undecided voters, whose votes eventually gave Owens the winning edge.

In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, social conservatives said the challenge to the GOP-to nominate candidates that appeal to the conservative base-still stands. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony list, said her organization will not hesitate to make similar moves in 2010: "We plan to continue in any kind of competitive primaries where we see either a reason to block someone from coming into Congress or a reason to advance someone into Congress or Senate or governorship." She stressed that the GOP must test the grassroots viability of its candidates and discard nominees who alienate the base. She added, "If we have to have that conversation in a high profile way, that's OK."

The Susan B. Anthony List was heavily involved in New York's 23rd District campaign, spending $142,000 total on radio ads, phone calls, and ground operations. The Club for Growth, one of the first Hoffman endorsers and another major player, spent over $1 million, including bundled donations from members. Leaders pointed to this fiscal and social conservative unity as a winning team in this and future races. Gary Bauer, chairman of Campaign for Working Families and another early Hoffman endorser, said, "If Republican operatives and pollsters and consultants at this point still don't understand that the road to victory is putting together a coalition of social and economic conservatives, they really need to go into another line of work."

Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee finally spoke out on the race Wednesday morning, telling reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that the Scozzafava nomination was "a train wreck" and a "truly boneheaded" pick: "There were just so many things that she was just at odds not just with the mainstream of the party, but she was more liberal than most of the Democrats in Congress." Still, he cautioned that choosing third-party candidates could lead to Democratic victories like this one.

On her Facebook page, Sarah Palin-one of Hoffman's early endorsers-said, "The race for New York's 23rd District is not over, just postponed until 2010." To "grassroots patriots," she quoted Ronald Reagan, saying, "The cause goes on."

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