The Campaign Spectator

Battle Cry in the North Country

Doug Hoffman's campaign in upstate New York isn't necessarily over.

By From the December 2009 - January 2010 issue

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Yates Walker ate breakfast in the Blue Moon Café on Main Street in Saranac Lake, New York, on the morning of November 4, and delivered an after-action report on the battle that had just been fought in the upstate 23rd District.

"We took a CPA from 9 percent to 46 percent in two and a half weeks," said Walker, a young veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division who had been hired 18 days earlier to work on Doug Hoffman's congressional campaign staff. "I couldn't be prouder."

He fell 5,000 votes short of defeating Democrat Bill Owens, but Hoffman's surprising surge in the closing weeks of the three-way special election in upstate New York had, in Walker's words, turned the bespectacled accountant into "an electric symbol of conservatism."

A month before Election Day, the Hoffman campaign had been nearly broke. Despite endorsements from organizations like Club for Growth and the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, the Conservative Party candidate's challenge to liberal Republican state assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava was on the verge of fizzling out in early October.

"Truth be known, for a long time, we were running on empty," said Hoffman, sitting in his campaign headquarters the morning after the election. "If we didn't get the support when we got it -- well, it was touch-and-go for a while."

In the second week of October, however, Hoffman's campaign took off -- thanks in large measure to a relentless push from Internet activists like Erick Erickson of the popular conservative blog RedState.com. Erickson endorsed Hoffman in August, about a month after local GOP leaders met at a pizza restaurant in Potsdam, New York, and chose Scozzafava as the Republican nominee for the special election to replace nine-term Republican Rep. John McHugh, who had been appointed secretary of the army by President Obama.

The backroom dealings that led to the choice of Scozzafava became the subject of bitter recriminations after Republicans learned of the nominee's liberal record. Married to a union organizer, Scozzafava had enjoyed the support of the Working Families Party, a political arm of the left-wing nonprofit group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Scozzafava was not only pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, she had also amassed a voting record in Albany that put her to the left of many Democrats in the state assembly, and had furthermore praised Obama's bailout-and-stimulus economic agenda.

Mike Long, the chairman of New York's Conservative Party, said he warned state and local GOP leaders that, of the nine Republicans seeking the nomination to replace McHugh, Scozzafava was the one candidate that his party could not endorse. In the multi-line balloting system in New York, endorsement by the Conservative Party can add an extra 5 to 10 percent to a Republican candidate's total -- the difference between victory and defeat in a close contest. Without the Conservative line, Scozzafava's candidacy would be imperiled from the outset, but the GOP county chairmen who met July 22 in the Potsdam pizzeria ignored Long's warning.

Hoffman had sought the Republican nomination, but hadn't been viewed as a leading contender. Hoffman himself acknowledges his shortcomings as a politician, especially his deficits as a public speaker. Reminded on the day after the election of an awkward moment during the campaign, he laughed and said, "You think that was bad, you should have seen my first speech."

His shortcomings as a candidate, however, were less important to Mike Long than his devotion to principle, and Hoffman received the Conservative Party nomination on August 7. From that moment onward, Hoffman's underdog candidacy steadily cut into Scozzafava's Republican support, despite his shortage of campaign cash and name recognition.

In his hometown of Saranac Lake, where his campaign was headquartered on the site of the Mobil station where he began pumping gas at age 14 to help support his family, Hoffman is a much-admired local success story. At age 27, he was named chief accountant for the Lake Placid Olympic Committee. In
his speeches, Hoffman occasionally alluded to the U.S. hockey team's "miracle on ice" triumph over the Soviets in the 1980 winter Olympiad. Yet he was unknown in most of the sprawling 23rd District, which stretches along the Canadian border from the Vermont state line on the east to Lake Ontario on the west. The largely rural "North Country" had regularly returned two-thirds Republican majorities for McHugh, but the geography of the district posed significant problems to a cash-strapped campaign with a neophyte candidate.

Hoffman got a boost when the Club for Growth began airing TV ads in the district that presented the Democrat Owens and the Republican Scozzafava as a pair of peas-in-a-pod liberals, with Hoffman as the "common-sense conservative" alternative. In the second week of October, with the help of a conference call organized by the American Conservative Union's political action committee, Hoffman's campaign began getting a drumbeat of coverage from conservative bloggers. On October 16, the same day a poll showed Hoffman as having crossed the 20 percent threshold considered essential to a successful third-party campaign, Michelle Malkin devoted her syndicated column to denouncing Scozzafava as an "ACORN-Friendly, Big Labor-Backing, Tax-and-Spend Radical in GOP Clothing," and posted it on her popular blog.

Coverage by Malkin and other bloggers helped spark online contributions to Hoffman, which soon reached $30,000 per day. It was the day after the Malkin column that Yates Walker found himself on the phone with Hoffman campaign manager Dan Tripp, who was looking for someone to manage their Plattsburgh office. "I hung up and texted him back 15 minutes later," Walker said, recalling his cell-phone text message: "Just bought my ticket to Syracuse. I'll see you tomorrow."

Four days later, former House majority leader Dick Armey flew in to the 23rd District to announce his endorsement of Hoffman, and that evening, Sarah Palin posted an endorsement message on her Facebook page, which has nearly a million subscribers. In that one day -- Thursday, October 22 -- the Hoffman campaign collected $116,000 in online contributions.

Within 10 days, faced with poll numbers showing her headed for a weak third-place finish, Scozzafava suspended her campaign and endorsed the Democratic candidate, just two days before Election Day. This vindicated the argument of Scozzafava's critics that she was an un-trustworthy RINO (Republican In Name Only) but complicated the electoral calculations of Hoffman's campaign strategists, who had been counting on Scozzafava to drain off enough union votes from Owens to allow Hoffman to win a plurality in the three-way race. In the end, Scozzafava collected nearly 7,400 votes -- more than the Democrat's 5,700-vote margin of victory.

Op-ed pundits and tv talking heads portrayed the battle in the North Country as evidence of an intraparty schism, a Republican "civil war," but in fact the ideological factor of right vs. center was less important than the uprising of the party's rank and file against a GOP establishment that grassroots activists consider out of touch, politically inept, and hamstrung by favor-swapping among well-connected Republican insiders.

While ideology clearly played a role in this battle, not all of the Republican activists who backed Hoffman's insurgency shared his hard-core conservative beliefs. One GOP Internet operative of libertarian leaning saw the lesson of the NY23 fight as a training exercise for the bigger battle in the 2010 midterm elections, comparing it to the way Web-savvy liberals lined up behind Howard Dean during the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries. "Right now, we're where the Democrats were with Dean in 2003," the Republican operative said, remarking on the left's online advantage that the GOP has struggled to overcome. "We're getting there, but we're not there yet."

Like Yates Walker and other young activists who worked on the Hoffman campaign, the candidate who fell short of a miraculous victory in November was encouraged by the strong support he received in the closing weeks of the NY23 race.

"It doesn't have to end here....We've got to keep fighting," Hoffman said the morning after the election, as he sat in his campaign headquarters greeting well-wishers who stopped by to encourage him to run again in 2010. One of his neighbors had told him to think of the 2009 campaign as "target practice," and Hoffman smiled in amazement at what had transpired in recent days. "I've got Sarah Palin's phone number," he said.

The front door of the campaign office swung open and an old friend walked in to ask what she should do with her extra "Hoffman for Congress" yard signs. The candidate laughed and answered, "Save 'em for next year."

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.