SARANAC LAKE, N.Y. — The extraordinary special election here for the 23rd Congressional District seat ended with a Democratic triumph Tuesday night, but the battle over what it means to the Republican Party is still far from over.
Plattsburgh lawyer Bill Owens made history by becoming the first Democrat to represent the sprawling upstate region since the Civil War era, dashing the hopes of tea-party activists who were hoping to send a message to Republican leaders in Washington.
Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman and his supporters nevertheless declared a victory, describing the third-party nominee’s impressive showing as a warning shot to the party establishment.
“To dismiss the narrow defeat of conservative party candidate Doug Hoffman as a lesson in the playing out of the ‘conservative spoiler’ in a three-way race would be to miss the real lesson completely,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List. “Conservative efforts on the ground finally gave a voice to the thousands of voters in the district who believe that life, marriage and fiscal responsibility all matter.”
Indeed, Mr. Hoffman’s campaign was a frontal assault by conservatives upset with the party establishment’s nomination of a liberal Republican to fill the House seat. Win or lose, they say he taught party bosses a lesson they must heed if they want to prevail in next year’s midterm elections, particularly in Florida where conservative Republican Marco Rubio is challenging Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate, for an open Senate seat.
“The GOP now must recognize it will either lose without conservatives or will win with conservatives,” blogger Erick Erickson wrote on RedState.com. “For all intents and purposes, NY-23 is a trial run for Florida. And in Florida, the conservative candidate is operating inside the GOP. If [National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman] John Cornyn and the NRSC do not want to see Florida go the way of NY-23, they better stand down.”
Aided by a slew of endorsements from high-profile conservatives including former Sen. Fred Thompson and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the softspoken Mr. Hoffman, a CPA, was able to climb from third place to overtake one-time frontrunner Dede Scozzafava. The state assemblywoman then dropped out of the race, forcing GOP leaders who once attacked Mr. Hoffman to throw their support behind him.
“Hopefully, this is an unusual situation, but I think that the Republican Party hopefully will be more careful to pick somebody that has the ideas and values of a real Republican going forward,” Mr. Hoffman said Tuesday.
But while supporters of Mr. Hoffman were eager to read national implications into the race, Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said it wasn’t a “bellwether.”
“It’s an anomaly because we don’t have this happening all across the country,” he said. “This has basically been a giant experiment at the local level.”
Democrats were quick to rejoice in Mr. Hoffman’s defeat as evidence of the Republican Party’s disunity and intolerance for more liberal members like Mrs. Scozzafava, who broke with the party on abortion, the stimulus bill and “card check” legislation.
“This election represents a double-blow for national Republicans and their hopes of translating this summer’s ‘tea party’ energy into victories at the ballot box,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the House Democratic campaign arm.
“Not only did eight extreme right-wing groups spend more than $1 million to drive the moderate Republican — and the [National Republican Congressional Committee’s] chosen candidate — out of the race. Now, after losing a seat that was held by Republicans for nearly 120 years, they have to deal with an emboldened and well-funded far right-wing that refuses to tolerate moderate Republicans with differing opinions.”
This upstate Adirondacks region — which locals call the “north country” — is an unlikely scene for a national political drama. But the race not only earned national headlines, it drew a string of high-profile visitors including Vice President Joseph Biden, who stumped for Mr. Owens on Monday, and Mr. Thompson and country singer John Rich, who headlined a rally for Mr. Hoffman that night.