Saranac Lake, N.Y. – Jim Kelly walked into the lounge of the Hotel Saranac, his red tie undone and flapping against his shirt. He sighed. He plopped into a chair.
“Four thousand votes,” he said. “That couldn’t fill up one side of seats at Shea Stadium.”
[GOP]For two weeks back in the summer, Kelly had campaigned to be Conservative Party’s candidate in NY-23, the sprawling upstate district that opened up when Republican congressman John McHugh became Barack Obama’s secretary of the Army. Kelly dropped out when Doug Hoffman, a self-made millionaire and small businessman, decided to go for the party’s nomination. Things moved fast from there. In September, Hoffman won the support of the Club for Growth, the deep-pocketed 527 that typically funds conservative challengers inside, not outside, the GOP. That started an avalanche of support from conservative groups and politicians who spent half of their time backing Hoffman and the other half attacking Dede Scozzafava, a pro-abortion rights, pro-stimulus package assemblywoman who’d won the GOP nomination. On Saturday, when Scozzafava dropped out of the race, conservatives heralded a victory for their movement over the political establishment, and national Republican figures raced to support Hoffman.
Slightly before midnight on Tuesday, reality reared its ugly head. Hoffman lost to Democrat Bill Owens, who became the first member of his party to represent this region of New York in Congress since the 1870s. The margin when Hoffman conceded was slightly more than 4,000 votes. Nothing went right. Owens won his base in the northeastern part of the district, and he won or held his own in the parts of the district that Scozzafava–who endorsed Owens after leaving the race–represents in the assembly. Hoffman underperformed in the Syracuse, N.Y., suburbs that neither candidate had political ties to, even though polls had him leading by a 2-1 margin there.
It was a sour note in a night of mostly good news for Republicans. The party’s slate in Virginia, a state where it had lost ground for eight years, was so dominant that it pulled seven Republican candidates into the state House of Delegates. In New Jersey, where several election cycles had seen Republican leads collapse in the final days, former U.S. attorney Chris Christie handily defeated incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine. Conservatives rallied to overturn a same-sex marriage law in Maine, and Republican candidates won surprise, under-the-radar victories in local races in New York and Connecticut.
The problem for conservatives now is their definition of success, in the intoxicating run-up to the election, wasn’t based on a multi-state win. Instead, it was all about Hoffman.
“Hoffman is likely to win,” said Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, during a Monday appearance on Fox News. “This is a classic swing congressional district. If a conservative Republican can win in this district with all the disadvantages of the chaos on the Republican side and the official Republican candidate pulling out and endorsing the Democrat, what does that say to the moderate Democrats in the House?” As late as 10:13 on Tuesday night, the National Review writer Victor Davis Hanson referred to the Democrats’ “three candidates” who looked like they would go down to defeat in a referendum on Barack Obama. Two were defeated–one, Bill Owens, was not.
In the last, frantic 72 hours of the race, conservatives focused on NY-23 as an all-but-sure win for the unlikeliest of candidates, a conservative triumph that would put an exclamation point on a great Republican night. After a Monday night campaign appearance for Hoffman, Jeri Thompson told TWI that a victory for the Conservative “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.’” In his campaign appearances on Monday and Tuesday, the preternaturally low-key Hoffman began predicting victory. Asked if Scozzafava’s endorsement of Owens would hurt him, he said he’d “win without her.” Asked about the implications of a possible win, Hoffman eschewed the typical “too soon to say” response and talked about what “this victory” would mean for conservative, low-tax and anti-spending values.
If Hoffman and staff were too optimistic, they had their reasons. In the final stretch of the campaign, they welcomed in a surge of anti-abortion and Tea Party activists who hit the streets to canvass and get out votes. On Election Day, the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List coordinated more than a hundred activists to hand out sample ballots at polling stations. And at polling places visited by TWI, turnout was just what Hoffman’s campaign hoped for–high in the right areas–and voters who chose either candidate picked up on aspects of his message.
“We need jobs,” said Pat Kubli, a Plattsburgh voter who went for Owens. “Right now there’s a lot of focus on business and not enough focus on the middle class.”
Gary Barber, a voter from Ausable Folks, said he connected with Hoffman’s rhetoric about the size of the national debt, even though he hoped Hoffman would steer money to stimulus projects in the district. “I’m not blaming Obama for everything,” said Barber. “He inherited this shit from Bush, but he’s continuing everything that Bush did, starting with the bailouts.”
The levels of enthusiasm in both campaigns seemed to give an advantage to Hoffman. While reporters swapped rumors about the trouble Owens was having in turning out votes, At the candidate’s Plattsburgh campaign office, Owens’s direct mail–showing the president right next to the congressional hopeful–was taped to the door, an out-and-out mockery of the Democrats’ strategy of capitalizing on the president’s popularity here. Inside, volunteers phone-banked under the cover of a giant “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and eight posters ripped from a calender of Ronald Reagan photos. One message the phone-bankers deployed: “Send a CPA to Congress!” Another message: “Send a message to Pelosi!”
All of that stoked the impression that Hoffman was headed for a win. On election night, national reporters from The Wall Street Journal and Politico who’d come to NY-23 to cover the race headed to Hoffman’s event in Saranac Lake instead of Owens’ event in Plattsburgh, about an hour away. The initial mood was infectious. “This is a real win,” said one Hoffman organizer in an email to conservative bloggers who were about to jump on a 9:30 p.m. conference call about the race. “This may be short and sweet. I hope to delivery the message of: Victory.”
But as the night dragged on, the mood got sour. Hoffman backers sat or stood glumly in a ballroom, watching local TV reports that never seemed to let Hoffman get above 45 percent of the vote. A heaping catering table remained mostly full as activists talked amongst themselves and offered scenarios for what might be going wrong.
“The unions came out for Owens after Dede went for him,” said Hank Ford, the Conservative Party chairman in St. Lawrence County. “She transferred all that. Plus, her husband is a union guy.”
Sandy Caligloire, one of several Hoffman spokesmen, suggested that the conservative push that got Scozzafava out of the race might have doomed Hoffman. “We were strategizing for a three-way election,” he shrugged.
As the activists talked and drank, Hoffman’s spokesman Rob Ryan worked the ballroom floor, talking to reporters about the inconclusiveness of early results and the meaning of outstanding absentee ballots. At one point, he got local reporters to avoid going along with a short-lived MSNBC call for Owens. But as the night went on, more and more Hoffman allies poured cold water on their candidate’s chances. Owens, who ran a subtle campaign, benefited from a long-term Democratic canvassing and GOTV effort. He had the backing of powerful unions like SEIU 1199, who worked the district. Hoffman didn’t have access to Republican resources until it was too late. Some Hoffman workers suggested that the conservative effort that did come out was inexperienced, and failed to make the extra step to really pull out voters.
Hours before the polls closed, Hoffman backers were echoing the pundits’ spin–this race would be a referendum on President Obama, and a victory for Hoffman would put the brakes on health care reform by making Democrats worry about challenges to their re-elections in 2010. As a Hoffman victory became more and more remote, the rhetoric changed. The message became the message of two weeks ago. This election wasn’t about showing Republicans that conservatives could win. It was about showing Republicans that they couldn’t win without conservatives.
“People are fed up,” said Saranac Lake activist Russ Finley. “The Tea Party people are serious. The 9/12 people are serious. I’d hate to say that a loss is a good thing, but this is a good thing.”