Republican Scozzafava pulls out of House race in New York

Dede Scozzafava leaves voters a choice between Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman and Democrat Bill Owens, shown here.
Dede Scozzafava leaves voters a choice between Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman and Democrat Bill Owens, shown here. (AP)
By Karl Vick and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. -- The moderate Republican nominee for a vacant U.S. House seat here unexpectedly withdrew from the race Saturday, bowing to a revolt led by conservative activists that badly split the national GOP leadership and is likely to influence the shape of the party heading into next year's midterm elections.

With campaign funds drying up and support in public polls eroding significantly, Dede Scozzafava suspended her campaign three days before Tuesday's special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District. Her move paves the way for a more conservative third-party candidate, Doug Hoffman, in his effort to deny Democrats a seat that has been in the Republican column for more than a century.

Scozzafava's sudden departure represented a clear victory for the right flank of a fractured Republican Party that is trying to rebuild itself nationally after consecutive losses in 2006 and 2008 left the White House and both branches of Congress in Democratic hands.

The sudden turn of events in this Upstate New York district sends a signal to Republican candidates across the country that the populist forces are prepared to exercise their muscle against GOP candidates they regard as insufficiently conservative.

"The grass roots of the conservative movement just claimed a scalp before anyone even voted," said party strategist Mark McKinnon, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "The conservative movement is alive, well, kicking hindquarters and taking names. And if you don't measure up, look out."

Right sends a message

For weeks, conservatives had assailed Scozzafava, the handpicked candidate of local party leaders, over her relatively liberal positions on fiscal issues and her support for gay rights and abortion rights. Her withdrawal underscored the potency of the conservative populist movement that has risen up to challenge President Obama's domestic agenda and shape the future of a Republican Party lacking in strong leadership and a clear agenda.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who was one of Scozzafava's most prominent supporters, said her experience delivered a message to 2010 candidates and to those considering presidential campaigns in 2012.

"It says that you had better have a willingness to take on the establishment and a willingness to represent conservative values if you're going to have the energy and the capacity to create a Republican Party that's able to hold together a coalition," he said.

Already, conservative activists have zeroed in on the 2010 race for Florida's open Senate seat, in which the party campaign committee has endorsed moderate Gov. Charlie Crist but the more conservative Marco Rubio, a former state House speaker, is mounting a strong challenge.

"If I were Charlie Crist in Florida, what's happening in New York 23 would make me extremely nervous," said GOP strategist Todd Harris an adviser to Rubio. "A lot of the establishment Republicans underestimated the grass-roots anger across the country about spending and the expansion of the federal government. The anger is boiling over now, but a lot of the seeds of discontent were planted over the last five to six years."

For the rebounding party, however, the grass-roots discontent comes with risks.

"Because of what's happened, we're going to have some mischief-making, which is not positive for a party that needs to really focus on other fundamentals in order to make a comeback," Republican strategist John Weaver said.

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