- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Doug Hoffman says he’s fighting for the “heart and soul of the Republican Party” by running as a Conservative Party candidate, so don’t call him a spoiler.

Despite siphoning critical support away from official Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava, the candidate at the heart of the GOP civil war in upstate New York shrugs off warnings that he’ll cost Republicans a House seat long held by the party.

Polls give Democrat Bill Owens a slight lead, with Mr. Hoffman and Mrs. Scozzafava trailing and apparently splitting the conservative vote in New York’s 23rd Congressional District.

“Since I’m the only conservative candidate in this race, I think that Bill Owens and Dede have to be concerned about splitting the liberal vote,” Mr. Hoffman said defiantly in an interview.

The political newcomer, an accountant who was all but anonymous three months ago, is running in the special election to fill the congressional seat vacated by nine-term Republican Rep. John M. McHugh, in a race that has become the first national test of the electoral clout of the anti-tax “tea party” movement.

“The reason I stepped up was not only to stop this big government and higher taxes. I’m stepping up to save the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” Mr. Hoffman said. “I think there are a lot of average citizens like me around the country who are worried about this excess spending, worried about government taking over our liberties.”

His upstart campaign has nabbed endorsements from such high-profile Republicans as former Sen. Fred Thompson, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Advocacy groups such as the conservative Club for Growth have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race on his behalf, while former GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a prime organizer of the tea party protests, has hit the campaign trail on Mr. Hoffman’s behalf.

The effort has capitalized on the nationwide anger among conservatives over the government expansion that began during the debate over President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus bill and grew throughout the summer amid raucous congressional town-hall shouting matches over Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul plan. A major tea party rally in Washington in September followed quickly.

Now, that anger is being put to the test at the ballot box. And in this case, the tea party voters will have to choose among a Democrat, an establishment-backed, pro-choice Republican and a more like-minded insurgent candidate in Mr. Hoffman.

Mr. Hoffman has impressive fundraising numbers, particularly for a third-party candidate.

He has received nearly $308,000 in donations (including a $100,000 loan to himself) compared with $250,205 for Mrs. Scozzafava and $503,296 for Mr. Owens, according to Oct. 14 campaign-finance records. Mr. Owens likewise led the pack on donations from individuals, raking in $320,653, while Mr. Hoffman outpaced his Republican foe with $187,388 compared with her $120,442.

Most of Mr. Hoffman’s attacks on the stump have targeted Mrs. Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman who has gone against the national party on issues such as abortion rights, the stimulus bill, gay marriage and labor law. By all accounts, the strategy is having an effect: Once the front-runner, Mrs. Scozzafava is now at 29 percent, trailing Mr. Owens, - who leads with 33 percent - and only slightly ahead of Mr. Hoffman, who is at 23 percent, according to the most recent Siena Research Institute poll.

A Club for Growth poll released Monday put Mr. Hoffman in the lead with 31.1 percent, ahead of Mr. Owens with 27 percent and Mrs. Scozzafava at 19.7 percent.

Mr. Hoffman received a further boost Monday with the endorsement from Mr. Pawlenty, who, like Mrs. Palin, is considered a likely 2012 Republican presidential contender. Mr. Hoffman’s campaign also announced that 10 local Republican Party leaders have defected to his camp, with one county chairman resigning in protest over Mrs. Scozzafava’s candidacy.

The Republican establishment has hit Mr. Hoffman for hypocrisy, saying he initially promised to support Mrs. Scozzafava. The House Republican campaign arm, which continues to support Mrs. Scozzafava, has pointed out that Mr. Hoffman does not even live in the district.

Saying the split only helps the Democrat in the race, Scozzafava spokesman Matt Burns argued that a vote for Mr. Hoffman is “a vote for [Democratic House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and her big-government agenda.”

“Every independent poll shows Doug Hoffman in last place, so it’s little surprise his supporters are resorting to pure fabrication at this point. He’s growing more and more desperate by the day,” Mr. Burns said. “Dede will fight the big spenders in Washington, just like she did in Albany when she voted against Gov. [David A.] Paterson’s entire reckless state budget.”

Washington Republicans have attempted to shore up Mrs. Scozzafava’s conservative bona fides by securing an endorsement from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and getting her to sign an anti-tax pledge.

But that may not be enough to quell conservative discontent. Last week, about a dozen right-wing blogs and publications called on Mrs. Scozzafava to withdraw.

“We do not need another economic liberal in the Republican Party in the House of Representatives,” said Andrew Roth, vice president for government affairs at the Club for Growth.

Last week, Mrs. Scozzafava further rankled conservatives after her husband called the police on a reporter for the Weekly Standard for following her as she walked to her car in a parking lot. Her campaign then forwarded an e-mail exchange with the reporter to a left-wing blog, crying foul over what it said was the reporter’s aggressive questioning.

For his part, Mr. Owens, a lawyer, is determined to stay out of the fray, merely watching as his own numbers improve, giving Democrats a chance to pick up a seat in a conservative-majority district.

Asked whether his candidacy could be a template for other like-minded residents as next year’s midterm congressional elections draw near, Mr. Hoffman said it is up to “average people” to stop the growth of government.

“They got totally discouraged with career politicians and lawyers that have put our country in the mess that we’re in,” he said of tea party protesters this summer. “If you’re going to save America from excess spending and a debt we can never repay, average people like me and you have to do something about it, because these people certainly haven’t.”

• Kara Rowland can be reached at krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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