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In a war within GOP, the right wins a battle
Moderate nominee leaves House race in Upstate New York

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.

National attention

With this New York district holding the only congressional election in an off-year cycle, much of the nation's political attention has gravitated here to the state's remote crown, an area so close to the Canadian border that highway signs are in English and French. The district covers so much territory that canvassers pack a bag before setting off from Plattsburgh, a city of 19,000 nestled on Lake Champlain beside Vermont, for the six-hour drive to the next great cluster of voters, sprinkled like pine cones along Lake Ontario.

"We still have a type of isolation up here compared to the cities, so we still have the old traditional American values," Hoffman, who is running as the Conservative Party candidate, said in an interview here. "And that's why the majority of the people in this district are so conservative."

Since Obama's nomination of Rep. John McHugh as secretary of the Army, the race to fill his seat has become a microcosm of the struggle within the Republican Party between conservative activists and the moderate establishment.

"This is entirely a battle over the definition and winning formula for Republican candidates going into the midterm elections of 2010 and beyond," GOP strategist Paul Erickson said.

Several likely 2012 presidential contenders, including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, bucked the party leadership to endorse Hoffman. Even Richard K. Armey, the former House Republican leader, traveled here in late October with strategists from his Freedom Works network to help Hoffman, a rail-thin, bespectacled accountant making his first run for office.

The conservative Club for Growth financed a barrage of negative advertisements in recent weeks casting Scozzafava as a closet liberal, and the state assemblywoman's support among likely voters dropped to 20 percent in a Siena College poll released Saturday. Hoffman and Democrat Bill Owens were in a dead heat, with 36 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

On Wednesday night, Scozzafava found herself on a Plattsburgh stage after a debate Hoffman had skipped, visibly perspiring as she recited her conservative credentials before a crew from Fox News Channel.

"I believe in the Republican Party that stands for less government interference in the lives of individuals," Scozzafava said. "I believe in lower taxes, less government regulation. . . . I believe in all those core principles of the Republican Party. I believe in the First Amendment of the Constitution, the Second Amendment of the Constitution, all the amendments."

"People don't know who I am," Scozzafava implored. "My background and my record has been totally lied about."

But Scozzafava's pleas were not enough, and on Saturday she released a statement:

"The reality that I've come to accept is that in today's political arena, you must be able to back up your message with money -- and as I've been outspent on both sides, I've been unable to effectively address many of the charges that have been made about my record."

She released her supporters to "transfer their support as they see fit" but did not directly endorse Hoffman. Within hours, however, Republican leaders in Washington mobilized the party apparatus around Hoffman.

"This selfless act of releasing her supporters provides voters with the opportunity to unite around a candidate who shares Republican principles and will serve the interests of his constituents in Congress by standing in opposition to the liberal policies of President Obama and Speaker Pelosi," said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele.

A blow to Democrats?

Democrats thought the three-way race could result in Owens winning a plurality of votes in the district, where the last non-Republican to win the seat "was a Whig," joked a local councilman. Still, Obama won the district last year and Hillary Rodham Clinton carried it in her 2006 Senate reelection victory.

Political strategists said Scozzafava's departure is likely to benefit Hoffman, who has been attracting independent voters as well as conservatives.

"While the circumstances in this race are unusual, the one constant factor at play -- both locally and nationally -- has been that independent voters continue to peel away from the Democrats and gravitate toward the right," said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee.

When Hoffman visited McSweeney's Red Hots here last week, he told folks that he entered the race "because it's principle over party." As he polished off a chili dog, Pam Murray Wojtowicz asked from across the counter: "You know why I got involved? Joe the Plumber! I met him at CPAC in Washington. He said, 'You've got to get involved.' And now I'm a City Council member in Saratoga Springs."

"I'm a Ronald Reagan Republican," she added, "and we don't need another wishy-washy, let's-be-like-the-Democrats candidate."

Rucker reported from Washington.

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