Republicans Worry About Losing N.Y. House Seat

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When President Obama picked Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) to be secretary of the Army, he set the stage for a fierce battle over McHugh's seat. The election is days away, and the Republican candidate is trailing. Some conservatives think she is too liberal, and are backing a third-party candidate.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. A special election in Upstate New York has become a fight to define the Republican Party. The election is for an open seat in the House of Representatives. It's a solid Republican seat. Yet, with just five days until the vote, the Republican candidate is trailing. Some conservatives think the Republican is too liberal. They're backing a third-party candidate. And as we're going to hear, they even bought ads that undermine the Republican candidate by supposedly praising her for liberal views. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: In another age, say four years ago, this election in New York's 23rd district would've been a slam dunk for the Republican. Today, it's anything but that. GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava is running third. She trails the Democrat, Bill Owens, and a Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman. That's the context for this new ad, which isn't exactly what it seems. And by the way, the audio sounds better on television.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: On Tuesday, progressives have one candidate to vote for with pride: Dede Scozzafava.

OVERBY: It says she supports gay marriage, President Obama's stimulus program and other ideas that progressives do indeed share. But the man behind the ad is Jackson Stevens, Jr., an Arkansas banker and a board member of the anti-tax group Club for Growth, which - to close the circle - has done its own ads for Doug Hoffman, the third party conservative.

It's been like that in the 23rd district this fall, political ads blasting like never before, most of them coming from independent groups, and most with a nasty snarl. The National Republican Congressional Committee.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man #1: Bill Owens is a lawyer for tax cheats, and he's a magician, too.

OVERBY: And then, as Hoffman overtook Scozzafava in the polls, came this from the Club for Growth.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man #2: Bill Owens supports more Washington spending, more debt for our children. Doug Hoffman wants less spending.

OVERBY: And this from the Liberal Accountable America, invoking the financial meltdown.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Man #3: Will Doug Hoffman support real investigations? Hoffman's Wall Street-backed Club for Growth doesn't want bank investigations.

OVERBY: Some people in the north country say campaigns used to be pretty civil, up to now.

Mr. BOB GRADY (Editor, Plattsburgh Press-Republican): It's not local Republicans, but Republicans out of Washington that are pulling the triggers down there. And it's a far different kind of a campaign from anything we've ever seen.

OVERBY: That's Bob Grady, editor of the Plattsburgh Press-Republican.

Mr. GRADY: We haven't had a Democratic congressman since 1871. That's 1871.

OVERBY: But unless opinion really swings in the next few days, they won't have a Republican one, either. Hoffman, remember, is running on the Conservative Party ticket against Scozzafava, the GOP's candidate.

Mr. GRADY: The conservative wing of the party is probably at least as discontented with her as they are with the Democrat. The Republicans are very much split down the middle on this.

OVERBY: There are multiple theories as to how Republicans went off the rails in the 23rd. Mostly they have to do with local and national party leaders pushing different agendas. But whatever. Now it's gotten national Republicans choosing up sides. Former Senator Fred Thompson shunned the GOP candidate and cut this spot.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Republican Senator): Doug's like us, a concerned neighbor who's just had enough.

OVERBY: Several sitting GOP lawmakers sent Hoffman money, as did Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who's eyeing a White House bid. And White House prospect Sarah Palin endorsed the conservative.

Speaking up for Scozzafava, potential presidential candidate Newt Gingrich. He was on Fox News Monday, saying her credentials are in sync with her voters.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House): Now, that's adequately conservative in an upstate New York district.

OVERBY: Readers of his own Web site promptly chewed him out. But conservative blogger Dan Riehl says the big players don't really care about the 23rd district.

Mr. DAN RIEHL (Conservative Blogger): When the Club for Growth or anybody else gets involved here, you're still talking about a top-down effort to co-opt the local party.

OVERBY: Still, because of what's happened in New York's 23rd, he says, moderates and Republicans now are at each other's throats.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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