A Democrat running in a historically Republican stronghold won a closely watched special congressional election in northern New York on Tuesday, capitalizing on a split that emerged between moderates and conservatives for control of the GOP.
With 92 percent of the precincts reporting early Wednesday, lawyer and retired Air Force Capt. Bill Owens defeated businessman Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate, 49 percent to 45 percent, after a boost from unified labor efforts in the last days of the campaign and the withdrawal of the Republican candidate over the weekend.
"This has been an extraordinary journey," said Owens, who thanked his family, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
"The process of bringing people together to get results is something I've been doing for a long time, and that's what I'm going to continue to do when I get to Washington," he added.
Owens also thanked one-time opponent Dierdre Scozzafava, a moderate Republican who exited the race Saturday under pressure from the party's right wing because of her support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage and momentum behind Hoffman. Scozzafava, an assemblywoman in the state legislature, picked up 6 percent of the vote herself.
The race has been getting national attention, with some calling it a referendum on President Barack Obama and others saying it could help Republicans focus their message to attract more people to the party.
Republicans hadn't lost in the region in more than a century. Owens defeated Hoffman despite a 45,000-voter registration edge for Republicans and big-name endorsements for Hoffman from former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson and others. Hoffman had rallied an unexpected level of support in the final days of the campaign, ultimately forcing Scozzafava to quit when he surged past her in the polls.
"This is only one fight in the battle, people," Hoffman said before a gathering of supporters in Saranac Lake, N.Y., after conceding the race. "Let's keep the fight going. Let's make sure our voices are heard."
Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll, which has most closely tracked the race, said voters probably didn't pick Owens because they thought a Democrat could extract more federal largess from Washington, now in the hands of Democrats.
"I don't think it even goes to that level for most voters," Greenberg. "It's about, `Who is going to fight for us?'"
Owens will be up for election for a full term next year.
The race took several sharp curves leading up to Election Day. It started with Scozzafava in the lead while Hoffman was considered a spoiler at best. That gradually turned around, with Hoffman leading 41-36 in a Siena poll a day before the race.
Despite the fervor that surrounded Hoffman in the final week of the campaign, Owens managed to appeal to the voters with his talk of job creation and the need of more federal support for Fort Drum and farmers.
"I don't believe the vast majority of voters in the 23rd District – be they Democrats or Republicans or independents – are looking at this as a referendum on Barack Obama or as a referendum on the Republican Party or the Democratic Party or Rush Limbaugh or any of that," he said. "I think the vast majority of voters in the 23rd are saying, `We had us a great congressman in Congressman McHugh. Which of these candidates can do a better job representing me in Washington on the things that matter to me?'"
Such issues include jobs, the economy, taxes, health care, education, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Army base at Fort Drum.
New York state now has only two Republican congressmen in its 29-seat delegation.
Palin Actually Not That Popular In NY-23
Sarah Palin may have managed to drastically alter the course of upstate New York's special congressional election with a comment on her Facebook page. But despite catapulting the Conservative Party's Doug Hoffman to a likely victory in Tuesday's election, the former Alaska Governor is, herself, relatively unpopular in the state's 23rd district.
According to Public Policy Polling, 44 percent of voters in NY-23 said they had a negative view of the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee. That's one percentage point higher than those who viewed her favorably. Isolating just Republicans in the district, the numbers are better, but not overwhelmingly so. Fifty-three percent of Republican voters said they had a positive view of Palin while 32 percent said their view was negative.
The conventional wisdom was that Palin's endorsement of Hoffman gave his candidacy a tremendous boost forward -- so much so that the Republican Party's Dede Scozzafava was forced to drop her bid just days before voters went to the polls. But perhaps the power of that specific endorsement was a bit overstated.
More important, however, is what these numbers portend for future elections. NY-23 is a decidedly Republican district, with the GOP enjoying a 14-percentage point advantage in voter ID, according to Public Policy Polling. That Palin is just breaking even in one of the "reddest" areas of the northeast shows the current limitations of her political reach.
As PPP concludes: "She could overcome those kinds of numbers in a contest to get the Republican nomination but they certainly wouldn't be good enough in a general election. The North Country should be friendly ground for her and if she can't make it there it's hard to see how she can make it anywhere."