By Jessica Taylor - 06/19/14 06:00 AM EDT
For years, the New York primary system has been the GOP’s white whale.
Multiple Republican candidates on the ballot have led to fiascos for the party, which helped Democrats ultimately win swing districts in recent years.
If candidates already endorsed by the Conservative Party, who are guaranteed a spot on the November ballot, don’t win the GOP nomination to run against Rep. Tim Bishop (D) and the open seat of retiring Rep. Bill Owens (D), more chaos could ensue.
A 2009 civil war in the GOP helped Owens in the now 21st District first get elected, ushering in the advent of the Tea Party. Republicans were split along centrist and conservative lines between Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, who had the backing of the state GOP, and businessman Doug Hoffman, who was the pick of the Conservative Party.
That schism between warring factions of the GOP eventually forced Scozzafava to withdraw just before the election and throw her support to Owens.
Hoffman again played spoiler in 2010, when self-funding businessman Matt Doheny secured the GOP nomination. Though Hoffman ended his campaign, his name was still on the ballot. The 10,507 votes Hoffman received were more than the 1,995 separating Doheny and Owens.
Doheny ran again in 2012 with a clear path, but in a strong Democratic year, he still narrowly lost in a district President Obama twice carried.
Now, Doheny believes his third run will be the charm. But he’s not the pick of establishment Republicans, who are working overtime to ensure he loses to former George W. Bush administration official Elise Stefanik.
American Crossroads has already spent roughly $750,000 hammering Doheny in a trio of TV ads. It’s the only House primary the group has delved into and is only the third race where it has spent money this election cycle. That underscores how important this race is to establishment Republicans.
One Crossroads ad states, “North Country Republicans can do better than Matt Doheny” and calls him “no conservative.” Doheny’s past includes a dispute over pay for a former top staffer and a scandal last cycle where he was caught allegedly kissing a consultant who wasn’t his then-fiancee.
Doheny called the attacks “mean, personal and, in part, untruthful.”
Some GOP strategists think the 29-year-old Stefanik is their best chance against the Democrats’ somewhat last-ditch pick, filmmaker Aaron Woolf. Stefanik has secured the Conservative Party line on the ballot, but Doheny has backing from the Independence Party. Both will appear on the ballot regardless of which gets to add the GOP line, and Republicans are praying they won’t experience déjà vu.
But Crossroads’s heavy investment, and another $325,000 from a state-based super-PAC, was unmatched by Doheny. He didn’t dip into his own pockets and was outspent 7-to-1.
Observers say the momentum in the final days is with Stefanik. She has been endorsed by the 2012 GOP ticket of Mitt Romney and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan (she led debate prep for Ryan). If Stefanik triumphs, Republicans are optimistic Doheny would step aside and try to remove his name from the ballot, perhaps by pressing for a judgeship. But if it’s Doheny who wins, Stefanik will be feeling the pressure too.
As long as it’s not both of them on the ballot in the fall, either Republican starts with the edge against Woolf.
The political neophyte got off to a rocky start, after several other top-tier candidates, including the now-Democrat Scozzafava and former Rep. Scott Murphy (D) passed on the race. But Democrats say he’s assembled a strong team and note that Woolf would start ahead of either candidate in cash because he hasn’t been drained by a primary. Regardless, this will be a top battleground in November, and both party committees have already made early ad reservations there.
The state’s 1st District doesn’t have the infamous past that the 21st does, though it’s worth watching to see whether a GOP divide could play out here, too.
The Conservative Party has already endorsed state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R) in the Long Island district to take on the six-term Bishop, and he’s privately the favorite of national Republicans, too. But another former candidate, George Demos, is hoping to spoil those plans. The self-funder lost a 2010 primary but has aggressively targeted Zeldin for his votes in Albany.
Democrats maintain Demos has pushed Zeldin further right though, helping them in the general election. National GOP observers say they still think Zeldin has the edge, but the Democratic-backed Patriot Majority USA has been meddling in the primary and hitting Zeldin, hoping to get Demos through instead.
If Demos does win, Zeldin’s name would also be on the ballot, though under the Conservative Party line. But party leaders say they’re optimistic that won’t happen, in either the 1st or the 21st District.
“My hope is that the candidates that we endorsed … will carry the day, and my hope is that the Republicans understand that splitting the ticket would then automatically cause the Democrat to win those seats,” New York Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long told The Hill.
He was quick to point out that if either Stefanik or Zeldin don’t advance, it’s not the party that would be to blame this time around.
“In both cases, there is no split between the Republican Party and the Conservative Party,” he added.