WATERTOWN, N.Y. -- In the nation's only significant congressional race on Nov. 3, Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman has morphed in recent weeks from a no-hope third-party protest candidate to the lion of right-wing talkers (from Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck) who has won the endorsement of Sarah Palin and Fred Thompson. "I'm overwhelmed," said the reedy-voiced Hoffman Saturday night. "If I knew three months ago I was going to get this kind of spotlight, I probably would have been too shy to run."
The 59-year-old Hoffman and I were sitting on folding chairs in a local firehouse at the end of a long evening in which the candidate had won the unanimous endorsement of the 50 members of the Northern New York 9-12 Project, which grew out of the anti-Obama tea-party protests. Too much of a political novice to understand that a candidate leaves as soon as he ceases to be the center of attention, Hoffman stayed patiently through the earnest but tedious PowerPoint presentation on the group's 2010 plans. I asked Hoffman if he agreed with the way his challenge to GOP moderate Dede Scozzafava has been billed as a national referendum on the future of the national Republican Party. "It is now," he replied. "When I started, I thought it was a local referendum. I guess I didn't see the big picture. And I guess I didn't think I'd be making that much of a splash in it."
In truth, Hoffman has roiled the waters of New York's sprawling 23rd congressional district from Lake Ontario to Lake Champlain. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, working on behalf of party nominee Bill Owens, granted Hoffman its highest honor over the weekend -- launching a new TV commercial that lambastes the Conservative ("Millionaire Doug Hoffman . . . looking out for himself, not us") and ignores the Republican. For his part, Hoffman is on the air with a 30-second spot that attacks Scozzafava and Owens as "two peas in a liberal pod." And the National Republican Campaign Committee, which backs the under-funded Scozzafava, has been concentrating on the only safe target for GOP loyalists: "Lawyer (and) Magician Bill Owens -- he'd make our jobs disappear."
Few predicted that politics in the rural North Country would be this confusing when Barack Obama (who narrowly carried the 23rd District in 2008) created a congressional vacancy by appointing nine-term Republican John McHugh as secretary of the Army. But then Hoffman, who had initially promised to support the GOP congressional nominee, belatedly rebelled following the selection of Scozzafava, who has spent the last decade as part of the toothless GOP minority in the state assembly. Hoffman's explanation for his turnabout -- after sending Scozzafava a congratulatory e-mail -- is that he had been unaware of how liberal Scozzafava's voting record was on economic issues. In truth, the New York state legislature is such an undemocratic place (virtually all decisions are made behind closed doors by the governor and the leaders of both chambers) that voting records mean far less than they would in, say, Congress.
The result is a special congressional election that defies traditional politics. As a Democratic strategist put it, using words that could just have easily come from the Hoffman and Scozzafava camps, "It's like a World Wrestling Federation cage match. It seems like you're in one fight and then suddenly Hulk Hogan comes racing in from another direction and throws a chair."
Polling in special elections is often suspect, since it is so difficult to predict turnout levels. None of the three candidates has scored above 35 percent or below 20 percent in the four published polls conducted in the last months. The consensus of political insiders (and no one should bank on this) is that Owens has the lead because of party identification, Hoffman is gaining momentum, and Scozzafava appears to be fading, despite her strong base in Watertown media market, which makes up about one-third of the district. Rob Ryan, Hoffman's press spokesman, may not be far from the mark when he said, "The big story here is not that the Democrat could win. It's that the Republican could finish third."
The tea-party movement is not a place to look for moderation, but it was striking how many Hoffman supporters I encountered who were more interested in registering a protest with the national Republican leadership (including Newt Gingrich, who endorsed Scozzafava) than in keeping the House seat out of Democratic hands. As Frank Woodward, a retired staff sergeant who served with the Army's 10th Mountain Division, headquartered at Fort Drum in the district, put it, "As far as a lot of us social conservatives go, it would be better if the Democrat won rather than Scozzafava. At least, we'd know where we stand." Varick Ready, who heads a construction firm, was equally blunt: "To me, it's more important that we send a message to Republican politicians that we've had enough."
Yet, the establishment wing of the Republican Party also believes it comprehends the big-picture needs of the GOP at this time. Gingrich himself explains the other side of the equation: "The choice in New York is a practical one," he wrote on his Web site. "We can split the conservative vote and guarantee the election of a Democrat in a Republican seat in a substantial loss of opportunity. Or we can find a way to elect someone who has committed to vote for the Republican leader, has committed to vote against all tax increases, has committed to vote against cap-and-trade, and is a strong ally of the NRA."
For her part, the 49-year-old Scozzafava, who nurtures friendships with Democrats in the state assembly, is the antithesis of a mad-as-hell politician. "I don't think any party of total ideological purity [can hold a majority]," she said Saturday, while sitting at a littered table in her Watertown campaign headquarters. "The normal people you represent don't fit through the keyhole of ideological purity. So if you're truly going to be a representative of the people, it's never going to be pure." Maine Sen. Susan Collins -- along with Olympia Snowe, one of the last GOP moderates left in Congress -- agrees with this reasoning. Collins made a campaign appearance for Scozzafava on Saturday.
Scozzafava has a simple two-word explanation for the venom that is directed at her from the right: gay marriage, which she voted for in the state assembly in 2007. "I believe in lower taxes, I believe in less government spending, I believe in less government regulation and I believe in more individual freedom," she explained, a bit defensively. "But I think it's getting drowned out because I believe in one social issue." Hoffman, a passionate believer in free-market economics, insists, "We knew that Assemblywoman Scozzafava was not socially conservative. To my mind, that didn't make much difference."
Still, it is ironic that the Republican is the only candidate in the race who supports gay marriage. (Owens backs civil unions and Hoffman opposes any new legal protections for gay partners). But then, no one could have imagined the recent dust-up in which the local police were called by the Scozzafava camp because of exaggerated fears that a reporter from the conservative Weekly Standard was harassing the GOP nominee. This was akin to Nancy Pelosi fearing that she was being menaced by Keith Olbermann.
Following the hallowed principle of never getting in the way while the other party is self-immolating, the Owens campaign has been quietly reveling in the Republican donnybrook as it makes it likely that this section of northern New York will have its first Democratic congressman since the 19th century. Steve Murphy, Owens's media consultant, likens his candidate's stance to the Israeli attitude toward the Iran-Iraq War. As Murphy put it, "Let them fight for a thousand years."
As for Owens, a 60-year-old attorney, he is running a campaign that a Hollywood starlet would dismiss as vacuous. During a Sunday phone interview (his home town of Plattsburgh is at the Vermont edge of the district), Owens deflected almost all questions by repeating his mantra of "job creation, Fort Drum and health care." Asked to explain why he only registered with the Democratic Party to run for Congress, Owens replied, "I'm very comfortable with what the Democratic Party stands for and what I stand for. They mesh very nicely." But Republican Assemblywoman Jan Duprey, who has known Owens for 20 years and is actively supporting Scozzafava, sniffed, "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine him as a Democrat. He's always been pro-business. I've looked at his ads and I shake my head in wonder."
One reason why the Democrats control the House of Representatives, however, is that beginning with the 2006 election, they enthusiastically began embracing credible candidates who could win whatever their ideological history. If Hoffman finishes ahead of Scozzafava (or pulls off the nation's biggest election-day upset by winning the 23rd district), it will play a role in driving the Republican Party further to the right. That may be a comfortable position for most Republicans. But it is a strange way to win back power in the Northeast, where the GOP currently holds exactly two House seats in New York and New England combined.