How Democrat Bill Owens Won NY-23

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In the three-way carnival of a Congressional race in New York's 23rd district, third-party candidate and conservative grassroots darling Doug Hoffman was the eleventh-hour favorite, but Bill Owens eked out a victory, becoming the first Democrat to hold the seat in over a century. Hoffman was initially seen as a spoiler pulling votes from official Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava, but got a boost from national conservatives seeking to shake up the GOP establishment. Endorsements came from Sarah Palin, Steve Forbes and Fred Thompson. Ninety-five percent of his donations were from outside the district, over $1 million of which came from the conservative group Club for Growth. How did Owens, who consistently trailed in polls, manage to win the race in which he was all but invisible?

  • Hoffman's Backers Too Optimistic  David Weigel portrays a Hoffman campaign made over-confident by national attention. "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," he wrote. "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."
  • GOP Civil War Divided Vote  Erick Erickson proudly accepts credit on behalf of the grassroots conservative movement he helped to launch. "This is a huge win for conservatives," he writes. "First, the GOP now must recognize it will either lose without conservatives or will win with conservatives. [...] I have said all along that the goal of activists must be to defeat Scozzafava. Doug Hoffman winning would just be gravy. A Hoffman win is not in the cards, but we did exactly what we set out to do — crush the establishment backed GOP candidate."
  • Third Parties Too Risky  Conservative blogger Allahpundit warns that this is the risk of running an insurgent-style third party candidate. "Third-party challenges, while sometimes warranted, are a very risky proposition (attention Glenn Beck!)," writes Allahpundit, who has disputed Glenn Beck's proposition that a third-party candidate could win the presidency in 2012. "The point in torpedoing Scozzafava and swinging the GOP behind Hoffman was to send a message to the Republican leadership that only fiscal conservatives will be tolerated henceforth, and that message has been sent even with Owens winning a squeaker."
  • Hoffman a Bad Candidate  Nate Silver puts it plainly. "Hoffman was a relatively uncharismatic candidate with poor command of the local issues," he writes. "It was also a reminder that all politics is local (sometimes). More than 95 percent of Hoffman's contributions came from out-of-district, and the conservative activists who tried to brand him as a modern-day Jefferson Smith  never bothered to check whether he resonated particularly well with the zeitgeist of the district."
  • Attacking Obama Backfired  The Guardian's Michael Tomasky notes that the national character of the race made President Obama an issue, and Obama is still popular. "In sum, a good Republican night, but you can bet that Hoffman result, which came in after midnight, darkened their moods considerably. It was the only major race in which the candidates were arguing about what's going on in Washington. The guy who runs that town still is not as despised as the right wing thinks he ought to be."
  • Clueless GOP Bungled It  Commentary's Jonathan Tobin blames the Republican establishment that initially selected Scozzafava. "The lesson here is not the danger that the right poses to the future of the Republicans but rather that a party leadership that is insensible to the interests of their voters is doomed to defeat. Had the Republicans chosen a candidate who could have counted on the support of the party’s base to start with, the seat could have been held despite the changing demographics in the district."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.