A GOP Civil War in Upstate New York

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From left: Mike Lynch / Adirondack Daily Enterprise / AP; Jessica Collier / Adirondack Daily Enterprise / AP (2)

Democrat Bill Owens, left, Republican Dierdre Scozzafava and Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate for New York's 23rd Congressional District

My home congressional district, New York's 23rd, may cover 14,000 sq. mi. of what's known as the North Country, but in many ways, it's one big small town. With a population of just over 650,000 — most of whom are white and working- or middle-class — the key issues in the rural district that sprawls across the northeast part of the state are typically things like the future of the local Army base, falling milk prices and whether anyone can ever lure enough jobs back to the area to replace those that were lost when the region's manufacturing sector dried up in the 1980s and '90s.

The campaign to represent the place where I grew up and worked as a beat newspaper reporter, however, is anything but typical — or local. For starters, there are three unorthodox candidates: a pro-choice, pro–gay marriage, pro-union Republican; a registered independent running on the Democratic ticket; and a Conservative Party candidate who doesn't live in the district and may well win — or play the part of GOP spoiler and help elect a Democrat to a seat that has been occupied by Republicans since the 1800s — despite skipping most chances to appear publicly with his opponents. But even these three personalities aren't what make the campaign to replace former Republican Representative John McHugh — tapped to be President Obama's Secretary of the Army — downright weird. What's making it weird — at least from the perspective of many of my former neighbors and colleagues — is all the attention that's being focused on an area that is usually perceived by outsiders as merely remote. (The Wall Street Journal recently described the 23rd as a "part of New York so far north, it actually abuts Canada." Actually!)

"It's surreal," says Scott Atkinson, news director at WWNY, the main television station in the district's largest city of Watertown. "From where we are, there are all these local issues to contend with. But then we turn on the tube and we're watching this weird parallel universe of the talking heads talking about this as the future of the Republican Party."

So how did this happen? After McHugh — a moderate, environmentally friendly Republican who was re-elected to the seat eight times — accepted Obama's nomination, local Democratic and Republican leaders chose their respective candidates. Bill Owens, an attorney with left-of-center views, was the choice of the Democrats, while Dierdre (Dede) Scozzafava, a moderate state assemblywoman from the district, was the pick of the local GOP. Doug Hoffman, an accountant living over the district line in Lake Placid, then declared his own candidacy with the backing of the state's Conservative Party leaders, who had opted not to endorse Scozzafava. Now Scozzafava has the support of the official GOP establishment — including House minority leader John Boehner and Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele — while Hoffman has garnered endorsements from other prominent Republicans (and probable 2012 GOP presidential candidates) like Sarah Palin and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty as well as conservative former U.S. Senators like Rick Santorum and Fred Thompson. Hoffman is also a favorite of talk-show host Glenn Beck and tea-party activists across the country.

Jeff Graham, the mayor of Watertown and a member of the Independence Party, says Hoffman is a "meek, soft-spoken guy who is mad as hell and just decided to go ahead and do this 2009 version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And it seems to be working." Upstate political observers say Hoffman has struck a chord with voters based on his deficit-reduction message and pro-life stance. He also supports a flat tax and lists four other "issues" on his campaign website's homepage: "Gay Marriage," "Bank Bailout," "No Pork Pledge" and "ACORN." "I'm fighting for the heart and soul of the Republican Party," says Hoffman, who helped manage the finances of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

What's not clear is how much he knows about my district. He showed up for just one debate, citing scheduling conflicts on other occasions. In an interview with the editorial board of my old employer, the Watertown Daily Times, Hoffman was asked about a new super-highway that had been proposed years ago for the district but needs federal funding. No opinion. Where did he stand on the controversial idea of dredging the St. Lawrence River, which forms the district's border with Canada? No comment. A subsequent editorial in the Daily Times described Hoffman as "flustered and ill at ease" and said he "showed no grasp of the bread-and-butter issues pertinent to district residents." It didn't help that Hoffman brought along former House majority leader (and staunch conservative) Dick Armey with him to the editorial board meeting — Armey called the local issues "parochial" and said the editorial board ambushed his candidate. Hoffman also says he opposes pork-barrel spending, the kind of federal cash infusions a rural, economically depressed, military-heavy area like the North Country depends on.

But then, the race in the 23rd is no longer about local issues. It's about a Republican Party with little power in the Beltway searching for a way out of the wilderness. And it's about conservative Republicans sending a message: the future of the party is the conservative base. (It's also, incidentally, about money; according to the Federal Election Commission, more than $650,000 has flowed to the candidates from independent groups just since Oct. 24.) "The 23rd has as little significance as Gettysburg. It's just where the armies met," says Bob Gorman, managing editor of the Daily Times and my old boss. "Everybody was looking for a fight, and that's where they found each other."

The money flowing to Hoffman's campaign from conservative interest groups has been used to paint Scozzafava as a leftist. True, Scozzafava supports abortion rights, gay marriage and the pro-union legislation known as Card Check. But she is endorsed by the National Rifle Association, she supported the Bush tax cuts, and she opposes much of Obama's health care plan. "Whether you agree with Scozzafava or not or whether you like her politics or not, there's this real cognitive dissonance between the woman that we know and this bizarre caricature of her that's being described out there," says Atkinson of WWNY. "Now she's like a stand-in for Mao and it's just bizarre."

Scozzafava hasn't exactly helped herself. At one point she called 911 after a Weekly Standard reporter followed her to her car asking questions about taxes. The gaffe soon became fodder for a Hoffman radio ad. Then Scozzafava, hoping to chide Hoffman into participating in more debates, appeared in front of his headquarters as a one-woman protest — an image that would make any political handler cringe.

Based on the most recent polls, it seems Scozzafava has little chance of winning; her support is trending downward, while Hoffman is gaining ground, putting him in a tight race with Owens with only four days left until voters go to the polls. The newest television ad on Hoffman's campaign website attacks Owens, now perceived as a bigger rival than Scozzafava. And on Thursday, Representative Pete Sessions, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Politico that Hoffman would be welcomed "with open arms" into the GOP caucus, no doubt to the dismay of the party's official candidate in the race.