The Tea Party In New York: Supporting A Dropout

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In New York's 23rd congressional district race, the Tea Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, has dropped out. But he's still on the ballot, and a Saturday poll shows him drawing 15 percent of the vote. That support accounts for nearly all the lead for incumbent Democrat Bill Owens over Republican Matt Doheny, so there's a very real possibility that the political ghost of a Tea Party candidate could play the spoiler role. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN: I'm Brian Mann in New York's 23rd House District all the way up on the Canadian border. The Republican Party and Tea Party activists have been feuding here for more than a year. Last month, after a bitter Republican primary, Matt Doheny edged out the Tea Party's handpicked candidate, Doug Hoffman. But Hoffman refused to step aside, insisting that he would run as a third party conservative.

Mr. DOUG HOFFMAN (Former Republican Congressional Candidate, New York): I am going to run on honesty and integrity. And like I said, I'm going to run against my opponents, who have not been truthful to the voters and have deceived them.

MANN: It was a huge blow to the Republicans. With money and time already tight, Doheny was forced for weeks to juggle a two-front campaign.

Mr. MATT DOHENY (Republican Congressional Candidate, New York): We (unintelligible) I mean I'm pledging to the voters like I did before - we are going to have the resources to not only compete but to beat Bill Owens.

MANN: The incumbent, Democrat Bill Owens, won this seat last year in a special election - the first Democrat to represent the district since the Civil War. Hungry to take the seat back, Republicans worked with Tea Party leaders to convince Hoffman to step aside. He finally dropped out October 5th, but here's the twist: Hoffman's name will still appear on the ballot on the Conservative Party line, and this sprawling rural district is still peppered with yard signs and banners urging people to vote for him.

A poll released this week by the independent Siena Research Institute found that a lot of voters don't seem to know that Hoffman is out of the race. Here's Siena pollster Steven Greenberg.

Mr. STEVEN GREENBERG (Pollster): Given that Doug Hoffman remains on the ballot, what Siena did in this survey is we gave voters initially a choice of three candidates, and he initially got 15 percent support, Mr. Hoffman did.

MANN: With that confusion factored in, Democrat Bill Owens has an 11 point lead. Now, here's the second twist: The animosity between the Tea Party and the GOP is so strong here that even when Hoffman voters were told that he was out of the race, fewer than half said they would switch to support Republican Matt Doheny. Jos Vadero(ph) is a Tea Party activist from Lake Clear, New York.

Mr. JOS VADERO: I'm going to vote for Doug Hoffman. I believe in the man. He's a great family man, he's honest.

MANN: But he's also not a candidate anymore.

Mr. VADERO: Well, that's true, but by voting for him I send a message to the Republican Party. They have to return to their conservative roots if they want my support in the future, and they're not doing that.

MANN: Even with Hoffman out of the race, Republicans here worry that the Tea Party candidate could play the role of spoiler.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Saranac Lake, New York.

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