A New Conservative Star Wrestles With the Spotlight

November 03, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman's final pre-election day speech (David Weigel) Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman's final pre-election day speech (David Weigel)

WATERTOWN, N.Y. – Fred Thompson sounded like he was about to choke up. The former Tennessee senator and current conservative radio host, one of the first national political figures to endorse Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, was introducing his candidate at the final pre-election day rally on Monday night.

“Thank goodness we still have that American spirit, from the very beginning of our founding, personified in this man,” said Thompson, “who came from nowhere, when no one gave him a chance, and just said ‘I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna do the right thing for my country.’ The strength of his courage and what he did and what he’s doing is going to carry us through.” Thompson’s voice quavered a little bit. “It’s going to make him a great congressman.”

[GOP1] With that, a roaring crowd of conservatives were re-introduced to Hoffman. The crowd numbered more than 400, somewhere around twice the size of the one at Democratic candidate Bill Owens’s mid-morning rally with Vice President Joe Biden. The walls of the small event hall in the Watertown Fairground were festooned with “Don’t Tread On Me” and “Liberty or Death” signs; supporters waved placards that read “Save Our Country, Vote Hoffman” and “THANK YOU: John Rich, Fred Thompson, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck.”

It all led up to a political speech that was notable largely for its meekness. As Hoffman shifted his weight from side to side and glanced down at his notes, he tossed out only two pieces of red meat — an attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a promise not to let government “take over health care.” With the rest of his time — less than four minutes — Hoffman talked broadly about bringing jobs back to the district. “I’m going to make sure that everything we can do for Fort Drum, we do it,” he said. “I’m going to make sure that, you know, Watertown, with new jobs, new businesses, and new economy, that’s going to carry us through for the next 20, 30, 50 years.” The second statement did not quite make sense, but the crowd roared its approval.

The final day of campaigning in NY-23 was a study in contrasting narratives. Democrats, bolstered by the 11th-hour endorsement of former GOP candidate Dede Scozzafava, hustled to argue that Hoffman was a product of right-wing political extremism with untested views. Conservatives and Republicans, giddy over a turn of events that has turned Hoffman from a gadfly candidate to an undisputed frontrunner, were already expecting victory on Tuesday and embracing this awkward, 59-year-old CPA as the the agent of a Democratic downfall. He was, as one activist at the Watertown rally put it, a “shot across the bow,” the embodiment of the Tea Party movement, a citizen politician whose insurgency would make the GOP honest. A Hoffman victory, said Jeri Thompson, if added to Republican wins in New Jersey and Virginia statewide elections, “would mean the Blue Dog Democrats stiffen their spines and say ‘no way, there’s no way we’re going to vote for health care.”

At the same time, Hoffman’s mellow nature, and his ability to avoid committing to specific conservative policies, have been the cause of amusement in the press corps and in the candidate’s own campaign. In a mid-October interview with TWI, Hoffman had strayed from the dogmatic conservative response to the stimulus–opposing it outright–and mulled over redirecting more stimulus funding to infrastructure and “job credits.” He gave the same response to another reporter. And another reporter told TWI that interview footage of Hoffman was so bland that it wasn’t worth using. After the Watertown rally, Sandy Caligoire, a Hoffman spokesman, argued that Hoffman’s lack of charisma had become a boon to the campaign.

“People look at Obama and they see how a slick politician can turn on them,” said Caligoire. “Doug’s a regular guy. He’s gotten better as the campaign’s gone on, but he’s a regular guy, and I think that appeals to people.”

The gap between Hoffman and his supporters seemed to widen from the beginning of the day to the final rally. In the morning, as Vice President Joe Biden rallied Democrats in Watertown by portraying Hoffman as the candidate of Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and Tea Party activists, outside, two dozen Hoffman supporters lined the sidewalks with signs that attacked Owens as a “Pelosi puppet” and an agent of ACORN.

“I was at a Tea Party, but this is too slow a process for me,” said John Dewitt, a contractor from Adams, N.Y. “I’m more on the violence side. I’m more of the Civil War, revolutionary kind of guy. I’m of the old school–you kick them in the ass and be done with it.”

The Hoffman backers outside of the Biden event all said they’d attended Tea Parties. Some were affiliated with Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project. All worried that ACORN was going to show up in the district, or even at the Biden event–a paranoia that led to some minor awkwardness when an African-American Hoffman worker walked by.

“This guy’s with ACORN,” said Dewitt.

“Definitely, not from around here,” said businessman Erik Dunk.

Both men told TWI that they had doubts about President Obama’s religion and commitment to American values. Dewitt said that Obama definitely wasn’t a Christian; Dunk said that when Obama told an interviewer that America’s Muslim population could constitute one of the largest Islamic countries in the world, he changed the sign at his Harley-Davidson dealership to read “This is not a Muslim nation, and Obama is not a Christian.” He took down the sign, reluctantly, after a local university professor complained about it, and singled out the incident as a reason he was worried about losing his freedoms.

Inside the Biden event, Democrats ripped into Hoffman for having welcomed the support of right-wing activists–something Scozzafava herself criticized when she left the race. Again and again, Biden and Owens told the crowd that conservatives had given the voters of NY-23 an ideological candidate instead of a “pragmatic” candidate in the mold of former Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), who left the district when he became Secretary of the Army. While Scozzafava did not appear at the rally, her husband Ron McDougall did, and explained why the prospect of a Hoffman victory pushed him to endorse Owens.

“Hoffman doesn’t have a clue,” said McDougall, He cited a Watertown Daily Times interview with Hoffman–the newspaper reported that Hoffman was flummoxed by questions about funding for a few local projects–as proof that Hoffman didn’t really understand the district. “That speaks for itself. I know he’s not a seasoned politician. Bill Owens is not a seasoned politician, but he understands these issues, and he respects workers’ rights.”

But McDougall, not alone among Democrats, allowed some concern about the ability of labor unions to unite behind Owens. While members of SEIU 1199 were in force at the Watertown rally, the AFL-CIO did not make an endorsement until Scozzafava left the race. That cost Democrats valuable organizing resources while Hoffman was able to build a crusade of conservative activists.

Going into election day, pollsters have been thrown by the rapid-fire sequence of events that began with Scozzafada’s Saturday morning withdrawal from the race–a circus that’s led to what polling analyst Nate Silver called a “perfect storm of uncertainty.” The New York-based Siena Poll, considered the leading authority on the region, found Hoffman leading Owens by 5 points on Monday, with the Conservative Party consolidating Republican votes while Owens won Democrats and–narrowly–independents.

The reasons for Hoffman’s success are visible throughout the Watertown area. Dozens of pro-life activists have settled here–and in other urban centers–and adopted Hoffman as their own. The pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, which got into the race to oppose the pro-abortion rights Scozzafava, and has eight full-time organizers embedded in the district, has produced its own literature and sample ballots for anti-abortion rights Hoffman. In the run-up to election day, hundreds of students of college age and younger have been tasked with handing that out and having conversations with voters to convince them to back the Conservative candidate. On Monday afternoon, around 24 of those activists took a break from the canvass stood on the intersection of State and Columbus in Watertown. They drew slogans on signboards, then hoisted them up for passing cars, bearing slogans like “Dede’s Out, Vote Hoffman” and “Vote for Life.”

“I prayed on Saturday morning for Doug Hoffman,” said James Flath. A student at Patrick Henry College, he was one of many organizers for Generation Joshua, a pro-home schooling group whose younger members worked with older students to get out the vote. “That was the day that Scozzafava dropped out. I passed up a five-day weekend to be here–I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”

As Flath spoke, an array of hyped-up kids waved their signs and screamed whenever a car honked–which was often. “Vote for Hoffman!” yelled a young activist named Colin Zweigle, who flashed rock and roll “devil horns” at everyone who honked. “I’ll give you love, America!”

Throughout it all, the candidate himself stayed demure. At a meet-and-greet at a VFW hall, Hoffman posed for photos, signed autographs on beer coasters, and had variations of the same conversation with staunch supporters.

“How much will that coaster be worth when you run for president?” asked one supporter.

“Oh,” said Hoffman. “Thanks!” When Republican activist Bart Bonner pulled Hoffman aside to tell him how proud he was of Hoffman for “kicking ass,” Hoffman smiled sheepishly. “Don’t get too angry!”

But as Hoffman had bemused conversations, Fred Thompson told them the NY-23 race was “important to America,” and that “everyone is watching what happens here.” In a quick interview with TWI, Hoffman, obviously buoyed from the support of his newfound conservative movement supporters, Hoffman remained low-key. While multiple Hoffman volunteers had told TWI they were worried about ACORN interfering in the election–his own campaign has charged that ACORN will try to steal the election in northeastern Clinton County–Hoffman only said that he’d been “too busy” to notice what they were up to, although he knew they were “on the ground.” Asked to respond to the vice president’s charge that he wouldn’t be able to make any decisions that offended Rush Limbaugh, Hoffman shrugged and reached for his talking points.

“Well, I started this race a long time before Rush started talking about me,” he said. “I’m a common sense conservative and a Reagan Republican, and common sense says you don’t spend money you don’t have, and high taxes kill jobs and stifle business growth and jobs.”

Later in the day, Hoffman fielded another question about Limbaugh from Jude Seymour of the Watertown Daily Times. Asked whether he agreed with Limbaugh’s remarks that Scozzafava had committed “beastiality” by “screwing every RINO (Republican in Name Only),” Hoffman was taken aback. “I’d have to talk with him first,” he said. “I don’t know–that’s Rush Limbaugh. I have no comment to that.” Conservative reporters immediately chastised Seymour for asking the question.

Those questions aren’t quite as tricky for Hoffman’s supporters. Jeff Graham, the independent mayor of Watertown, told TWI that he endorsed Hoffman in part because of the attention that would come if he got elected. The embrace of right-wing talkers was more amusing than anything else.

“For Biden to say that Rush Limbaugh picked Doug Hoffman is ridiculous,” laughed Graham. “We all know it was Glenn Beck.”