NEW YORK | Liberal Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava stunned the New York political world Saturday by announcing the suspension of her campaign for the state's 23rd Congressional District three days before the election.
The surprise move leaves New York Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, with no prior political experience but a strongly conservative stance on virtually all issues, as the sole competitor against businessman and lawyer Bill Owens, the state Democratic Party's nominee, in a race most polls say is too close to call.
"It's an immense victory for the Conservative Party," a jubilant Mike Long, the state party's longtime chairman and a powerhouse in New York politics, told The Washington Times. "It shows the GOP gave courage to other Republicans to make the move to Hoffman against their own party's nominee."
"In the beginning no one believed we could prevail, and nearly everyone accused us of being spoilers," Mr. Long told The Times. "But we were given the opportunity to help take back the country for the taxpayers, beginning with the 9/12 movement and the anti-spending 'tea parties.' "
According to a Siena Research Institute poll released Saturday, Mrs. Scozzafava had 20 percent of the vote in the upstate New York district, trailing Mr. Owens (36 percent) and Mr. Hoffman (35 percent).
Mrs. Scozzafava's breaks with the Republican Party on thorny issues such as abortion, card-check labor legislation and the economic stimulus bill had been rapidly driving supporters to Mr. Hoffman's upstart campaign.
Mr. Long attributed the shift of Republicans to the Conservative Party first to the endorsement of Mr. Hoffman by American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene, whose opinion carries weight with conservative Republicans around the country, then to the embrace of Mr. Hoffman by Jeri Thompson, wife of former Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, followed by support from Mr. Thompson himself and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has a small but loyal coterie of conservative Republican activists around the country.
Then, in a surprise move, former New York Gov. George E. Pataki showed up at a Conservative Party fundraiser at the New York Athletic Club on Thursday evening to announce his support for Mr. Hoffman. Mr. Pataki thus became the first major New York Republican to break with his party and go for the Conservative Party candidate - and to signal to other New York Republicans that it was all right to break ranks.
Mr. Long said that broke the back of the Scozzafava campaign.
"Let's send a message to [Senate Majority leader Harry] Reid and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi," Mr. Pataki told several hundred donors at a New York Conservative Party cocktail fundraiser.
Instead of holding a primary election, Republican contenders interviewed with the 23rd District's Republican county chairmen, who picked Mrs. Scozzafava despite her liberal and labor union affiliations. Their reasoning was that she had name recognition as a state assemblywoman that her rivals did not.
Mrs. Scozzafava had the endorsement of the left-wing New York Working Families Party.
In a move that perplexed many of his conservative supporters, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had endorsed Mrs. Scozzafava, arguing that conservatives had to win seats by electing Republicans to Congress as a first requisite to conservatives winning power and being able to stop the liberal juggernaut led by President Obama and the Democratic Senate and House majorities in Congress.
On Saturday, Mr. Gingrich released a statement throwing his support to Mr. Hoffman.
"The age of party leaders picking people is over," Mr. Gingrich said.
Later Saturday, Mr. Gingrich, in response to a question from The Washington Times as to why he endorsed the liberal Republican first and had now switched to the Conservative Party candidate - whether he first put party over principle and now is reverting to his longtime view that principle comes first - said, "I did not put party over principle. There was an issue of two principles."
"First, always endorse the more conservative, and second, respect local leaders and local decisions," Mr. Gingrich said. "When the 11 local county chairs unanimously endorsed someone after four public meetings, I did not think it was my place to repudiate the entire local party leadership."
He said Mr. Hoffman's "rise is a result of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Fox News, the Club for Growth, Gov. [Sarah] Palin and [Minnesota Gov. Tim] Pawlenty and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and virtually the entire national conservative movement joining with Mike Long, whose Conservative Party, a very established organization, which won its first big race 39 years ago."
"This was not an isolated amateur; this is an entire movement." Mr. Gingrich said.
In a letter to supporters, Mrs. Scozzafava explained that in "recent days, polls have indicated that my chances of winning this election are not as strong as we would like them to be. ... The reality that I've come to accept is that in today's political arena, you must be able to back up your message with money - and as I've been outspent on both sides, I've been unable to effectively address many of the charges that have been made about my record."
She did not, however, endorse Mr. Hoffman - or Mr. Owens, for that matter - saying instead that her supporters were free to go their own way.
"It's time for us to send a message to Washington: We're sick and tired of big-spending, high-taxing, career politicians and by voting for me on Tuesday you will send that message loud and clear," Mr. Hoffman said in a statement reacting to the news.
Mr. Owens praised Mrs. Scozzafava, blasting Mr. Hoffman and his conservative supporters.
"Voters have a clear choice on Tuesday: They can elect to go back to the George Bush economic agenda, or they can vote to move forward. Doug Hoffman and the Club for Growth's extremist agenda won't do a thing to get our economy moving again," he said.
Despite previously attacking Mr. Hoffman, Republican leaders on Saturday encouraged residents of the 23rd District to vote for him.
"He is the only active candidate in the race who supports lower taxes, fiscal responsibility and opposes Nancy Pelosi's agenda of government-run health care, more government and less jobs. We look forward to welcoming Doug Hoffman into the House Republican Conference as we work together for the good of our nation," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Minority Whip Eric Cantor and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions said in a joint statement.
"This is both a tribute to the power of the national conservative movement to define an issue and a commentary on the populist anger against politics as usual," Mr. Gingrich said in a statement Saturday. "The New York [Republican Party] has now had two troubled special elections, and it is clear they should go to a primary nominating system so everyone would feel it was fair and open."
"I am endorsing Hoffman and believe everyone who wants to create jobs with lower taxes and to control spending and deficits should vote for Hoffman Tuesday," Mr. Gingrich said in his belated switch.
Mr. Hoffman spent Saturday campaigning with Mr. Pataki, while Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is hosting a rally on behalf of Mr. Owens on Monday.