Republican officials turned to a conservative icon and invoked an anti-tax pledge Thursday to salvage the slumping campaign of a New York congressional candidate competing with a more conservative third-party challenger, part of an ongoing battle between the fiscally hawkish “tea party” movement and the Republican establishment.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) secured an endorsement from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for the party’s nominee, Dede Scozzafava, and got her to sign a “taxpayer protection” pledge to fortify her conservative credentials after polls showed her losing ground to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman.
The Republican Party is desperately trying to hold on to the seat vacated by John M. McHugh, a nine-term Republican incumbent who resigned when he was selected by President Obama to be secretary of the Army.
“The special election for the 23rd Congressional District is an important test leading up to the mid-term 2010 elections,” Mr. Gingrich wrote in an endorsement letter. “Our best chance to put responsible and principled leaders in Washington starts here, with Dede Scozzafava.”
The Washington Times obtained a copy of the letter, though an official announcement of the endorsement had not been made Thursday.
A new Siena Research Institute poll released Thursday found Democrat Bill Owens, a Plattsburgh lawyer and political neophyte, leading the race for the first time, 4 percentage points ahead of Mrs. Scozzafava and 10 points ahead of Mr. Hoffman in the tightening three-way contest.
A spokesman for Mr. Owens said the Democrat’s lead is less a result of Republican infighting and more a product of the candidate’s record.
“While polls come and go, this latest one demonstrates that voters are responding to Bill’s record on job creation and his plans to continue that work in Congress,” Owens campaign spokesman Jon Boughtin said. “That record and Bill’s plans to continue that work in Congress on behalf of upstate New York will remain our campaign’s focus moving forward.”
Some rank-and-file House Republicans privately say they have written off Mrs. Scozzafava’s chances in the Nov. 3 special election.
The members say she is a weak candidate who can’t rally the district’s conservative voters, echoing complaints of Republican-allied activist groups who complain that the pro-choice Mrs. Scozzafava is more liberal even than her Democratic opponent.
Mr. Hoffman is tapping the anger of the tea party activists - the movement that gained national attention this summer with protests against runaway government spending and debt - by casting doubt over the conservative credentials of the pro-choice Mrs. Scozzafava, who supported Mr. Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus.
The poll results indicate that his strategy is working. The Siena survey showed him with 23 percent of the vote, a gain of 7 points in just two weeks, while she fell 6 points to 29 percent. Mr. Owens’s support rose 4 points to 33 percent.
“With just 10 points separating the three candidates, this is likely to be a very tight - and fiercely fought - campaign right through Election Day,” predicted Siena pollster Steven Greenberg.
If current trends hold, Mrs. Scozzafava and Mr. Hoffman could split the Republican and Conservative vote and hand the election to Mr. Owens - in a district where Mr. McHugh won 65 percent of the vote just two years ago.
The dynamic of an establishment-endorsed Republican candidate facing an insurgent attack from the right is playing out in other states as well.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has the backing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in his run for the open Senate seat in 2010, but former state House Speaker Marco Rubio has stayed in the primary race and won support from such prominent conservatives as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and political strategist Karl Rove.
In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter earlier this year defected to the Democrats in the face of a strong Republican primary challenge from conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey, a Republican and former head of the anti-tax Club for Growth, which is backing his run.
The same players are flocking to Mr. Hoffman, a businessman with no political experience. The Club for Growth is pouring $250,000 into his campaign and a pair of one-time Republican presidential hopefuls, Mr. Huckabee and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, have announced their support.
“I think it’s a combination of people seeing what the two major-party candidates are all about and what they’re seeing is business as usual in Washington,” Hoffman campaign spokesman Rob Ryan said. “The voters are tired of that and I think that’s why you have a third-party candidate right in the middle of this battle making it into a horse race.”
Mrs. Scozzafava’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Rep. Pete Sessions, chairman of the NRCC, predicted Mrs. Scozzafava will woo back conservative voters with Mr. Gingrich’s endorsement and by signing a no-tax pledge from Americans for Tax Reform, a group that had criticized Mrs. Scozzafava for not signing.
“They haven’t seen this and it just happened today,” the Texas Republican said Thursday.
Mr. Sessions pointed out that Mr. Hoffman initially pursued the Republican nomination before accepting the state Conservative Party nod.
“We selected the best candidate,” he said. “[Mr. Hoffman] just did not show as well. He did not have the best ideas, and Dede’s ahead.”
Still, one House Republican following the race expressed concern that Mrs. Scozzafava is not running on both the Republican and Conservative Party lines, as Republican nominees have done in the past.
“The conservative line means something in New York and it is troubling when the Republican nominee can’t get the conservative line,” said the lawmaker, who asked not to be identified because he did not “want to be in the middle of it.”
“It will be a challenge for the Republican nominee to prevail there,” the member said.