New York 23: Parties Make Tactical Choices in Special

by Stuart Rothenberg August 17, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

Like generals preparing to fight the last war, party leaders in New York’s 23rd Congressional district apparently have decided that the results of the special election in the state’s nearby 20th district is all the information they need.

On the surface, the two parties have repeated their selections from 20th district, with Republicans picking a veteran legislator, state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, and Democrats selecting a political neophyte who isn’t burdened with a legislative record to defend and who has some personal resources, Attorney Bill Owens.

But, in fact, Republicans, hoping to avoid another special election loss, have done a significant about-face, picking a politically moderate woman with significant appeal to Independent voters and even to Democrats.

The key questions now are whether Scozzafava’s liberal record on abortion rights and gay rights, as well as doubts about her position on the Employee Free Choice Act, will drive conservatives to the Conservative Party line and the party’s nominee, Doug Hoffman.

And, will Democrats be as successful beating up the Assemblywoman and demonizing her record as they were in the 20th district special election, when they kept the focus on state Sen. Jim Tedisco’s (R) long record in the state Legislature? Owens has already stressed that he is not “a career politician” — an obvious shot at his Republican opponent.

Party registration figures — always a lagging indicator — favor the GOP in the district, but the Republican advantage in the 23rd district is less than the GOP advantage in the 20th district, where Democrat Scott Murphy narrowly won a late-March special election.

According to the New York State Board of Elections, as of April 1, 43.1 percent of active voters were Republicans in the 23rd, while 31 percent were Democrats — a 12.1-point advantage for the GOP.

In contrast, in the 20th district, Republicans held a larger 14.7-point advantage, 41.5 percent to 26.8 percent.

In both districts, the GOP edge has been eroding. In the 23rd, the Republican registration advantage was 14.6 points in November 2006 and 16.2 points in November 2002. So, recent registration trends clearly favor Democrats.

President Barack Obama carried the district last year with 52 percent, compared to 47 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

But geography may not be in Owens’ favor.

The district, which includes all of or parts of 11 counties, is a sprawling one, taking in the state’s most northern counties along the St. Lawrence Seaway and including two long “arms” that stretch south, one of which reaches almost all the way to Schenectady. The other arm stretches south between Syracuse and Utica.

Owens comes from Plattsburgh, in the extreme northeast corner of the district, while Scozzafava represents a geographically large Assembly district right in the middle of the Congressional district. Owens’ home county, Clinton, is only the fourth most populous county in the district.

In 2008, Rep. John McHugh (R), who is presumably leaving the seat when he is confirmed as secretary of the Army, won re-election by rolling up huge majorities in three counties: Jefferson, Oswego and St. Lawrence — parts of which are all represented in the Assembly by Scozzafava. Scozzafava’s husband, Ron McDougall, is president of the Jefferson/Lewis/St. Lawrence Counties Central Labor Council.

Democrats came out of the gate quickly trying to define Owens, who downplays his partisanship by asserting that he has been registered as an Independent since age 18, as another Scott Murphy.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) praised Owens, a former Air Force captain, for his military service and for “creating jobs in New York,” a message that worked well for Murphy in his special election. Van Hollen was apparently referring to Owens’ work on the Plattsburgh Airbase Redevelopment Corp., which was created to redevelop a military base closed by the Air Force in 1995.

Democrats are signaling that they will make an issue of a company with which Scozzafava has been associated and which, through subsidiaries, has numerous tax liens. Republicans counter that her own business has no such problems but acknowledge that her brother’s business has problems.

Scozzafava may also prove to be a tougher target for Democrats than Tedisco was. Observers say she is well-liked in the area, and moderate Republican women have been successful politically in Upstate New York.

“She’s a tough Republican for the Democrats to campaign against. She is a very good grass-roots politician,” said one longtime New York observer who thinks that her appeal with independent voters will be a great asset in the race.

Scozzafava has already won the Independence Party line, which proved crucial in Murphy’s special election victory in March. The Working Families Party has not yet picked its nominee.

But even GOP insiders are concerned about a possible revolt on the right. The Assemblywoman has been strongly criticized by conservative bloggers who see her as nothing more than a Democrat in Republican clothing, and Republican loyalists are concerned about possible defections to Hoffman, the Conservative Party nominee.

Republican insiders admit they know little about Owens right now, and his lack of a record means they may have little to shoot at. That could keep the focus on Scozzafava.

Of course, the national political environment is different now than it was when Murphy won his special election. Obama is more controversial now, and opposition to his health care initiative, particularly among many seniors, and to heavy federal spending has changed the landscape. Also, Democrats don’t have a popular local politician like now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to give cover to their nominee.

The special election has not been set because McHugh has not been confirmed to his new post, but a Nov. 3 contest is expected. That would put it on the same day as gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, adding to its potential importance.

A sweep of all three races would not necessarily say much about 2010, but it would give Republicans a welcome new storyline that could boost their morale, fundraising and overall prospects.

Plenty of questions exist about the two major party nominees and about the extent of the conservative Hoffman’s campaign. As Murphy’s victory earlier in the year demonstrated, the performance of the candidates matters, as does the behavior of outside groups and the commitment of the parties’ campaign committees.

“This race is classic jigsaw puzzle politics. The district is so dispersed geographically that the winner will need to put together a diverse partisan and geographic coalition. That’s particularly challenging in a special election,” said Bruce Gyory, a New York State political consultant who has advised Democratic and Republican candidates.

Scozzafava should start out ahead in polling because of her name identification, but given what happened in New York’s 20th, as well as recent trends in the district, the special election should be very much worth watching.