By Perry Bacon Jr.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009 1:27 AM
Democrat Bill Owens took a surprising victory in a special election Tuesday in Upstate New York, winning a House seat that Republicans had controlled since 1872 and, in the process, potentially deepening a split that emerged within the GOP during the campaign.
Owens, an attorney, defeated Doug Hoffman, who ran as the nominee of New York's Conservative Party. With 91 percent of precincts reporting, Owens had 49 percent of the vote, to 45 percent for Hoffman in the far-flung 23rd Congressional District. He will replace John M. McHugh (R), who resigned from Congress in September to become secretary of the Army.
"Upstate New York hasn't received this much attention since the Miracle on Ice. And tonight, with the entire country watching, Upstate New Yorkers sent a message," Owens told supporters in Plattsburgh.
His triumph came after a bizarre weekend in which the Republican nominee, state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, dropped out on the eve of the election and endorsed Owens. Her decision came after a slew of prominent Republicans had backed Hoffman and distanced themselves from her, dooming her chances. Scozzafava's name remained on the ballot, and she received about 5 percent of votes.
As Democrats rallied around Owens, they said Republicans had revealed their intolerance of moderates through the dumping of Scozzafava. Local officials in New York had nominated her instead of Hoffman and others, but that choice set the stage for a conservative uprising that last month went national.
Leading national Republicans, most notably former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, injected themselves into the race to back Hoffman and blast Scozzafava. In the process, the race turned into a proxy battle for broader questions about the direction of the Republican Party, and the momentum seemed to be irresistibly propelling Hoffman to Washington.
Even as he conceded defeat Tuesday, Hoffman said on his Web site, "I believe we have sent a powerful message and laid the groundwork for future conservative campaigns."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, retorted, "This election represents a double blow for national Republicans and their hopes of translating this summer's 'tea party' energy into victories at the ballot box."
This seat was one of the few remaining House districts controlled by the GOP in the Northeast, where Democrats have made major gains over the past several elections. In a sign of Democrats' hunger to win the seat, Vice President Biden traveled to Watertown, N.Y., to campaign with Owens on the eve of the vote.
The anti-tax group Club for Growth, meanwhile, funded ads that blistered Scozzafava over some of her positions. She supports same-sex marriage, is close to Democratic-leaning labor unions and had spoken favorably about the economic stimulus plan that Democrats pushed through Congress this year.
Hoffman spoke out against the stimulus plan and a climate-change bill currently before Congress, and he opposes legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. He was embraced by Republicans such as former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.) and, most notably, Palin. Once Palin declared her support for the conservative candidate Oct. 23, on her Facebook page, Republicans rushed to distance themselves from Scozzafava.
Conservatives, expecting a Hoffman victory, had already started talking about which moderate Republicans they would take on next, suggesting that those who back Democratic initiatives could face trouble winning primaries next year.
GOP leaders in Washington have endorsed Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for a Senate election there next year, but party activists, angry about his appearance with Obama this year to back the stimulus bill, have sided with his Republican challenger, former Florida House speaker Marco Rubio.