Republican worry over McHugh seat builds

Republicans are dismayed by a third-party candidate who could sap their candidate to fill Army Secretary John McHugh's old House seat, effectively handing a win to Democrats.

Accountant Doug Hoffman, who is running on the Conservative Party line, on Monday picked up endorsements that could mean enough money to compete against Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R) and attorney Bill Owens (D).

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Former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) urged supporters of his political action committee to back Hoffman, the "true conservative" in the race. The anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List backed him, calling Scozzafava an "abortion radical." And in its own endorsement, the Club for Growth, which surveyed the race last week, said Hoffman had "an excellent chance" of winning the race.

The Club's poll, conducted Sept. 17 among 300 likely voters, showed Scozzafava with a statistically insignificant lead over her two rivals. The Republican scored 20 percent, while both Owens and Hoffman clocked in at 17 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.66 percent.

The developments are the latest blow in a race that could give Republicans heartburn before it concludes. Hoffman has already released his first advertisement of the campaign, slamming Scozzafava as what he calls a liberal Republican, while Owens released his second advertisement on Monday touting his own credentials.

Owens and Hoffman have both committed to spending money on their own races. Earlier this month, Owens also got a boost when Vice President Joe Biden came to town and held a fundraiser for the Democratic nominee.

Meanwhile, Scozzafava has yet to unveil a television advertisement, relying instead on the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) for help. The NRCC has already spent nearly $120,000 on the race, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, dropping the money on its own advertisement last week.

Matthew Burns, a spokesman for Scozzafava's campaign, refused to reveal when the campaign would unleash its own paid media barrage, but he hinted that an ad is on its way.

Scozzafava was the front-runner when she joined the race, but the prospect of Hoffman taking a significant portion of her base vote has frightened Republicans. The party has not won a special election since May 2008, when Rep. Steve Scalise (R) won a heavily Republican seat in Louisiana, and even as polls show Democratic approval ratings falling, a loss could only depress the GOP's financial and activist base.

Already, some Republicans in Washington are downplaying their chances of holding the seat, though the NRCC is keeping a positive spin on the race.

"Dede Scozzafava was chosen as our nominee by party leaders on the local level, and she will be elected, not by Washington insiders, but by voters on the local level as well," said NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay. "She remains the only candidate in this race with the principled record and cross-party appeal to represent the values of central and northern New Yorkers.

"Fortunately, the local Republican county chairs had the foresight to see that Doug Hoffman lacked the integrity and qualities needed to be elected to anything — let alone Congress," Lindsay added.

"Dede has a proven record of principled leadership and has the credibility to work in a bipartisan manner to serve her constituents," Burns said. "Dede fits the district, and she will draw votes from all political parties."

Both parties have pointed to factors they say work against them. Democrats point to the GOP's voter registration gap; there are 46,000 more registered Republicans in the district than there are Democrats (along with 5,500 Conservative Party voters). Republicans point to the 2008 election, in which President Barack Obama carried the district by a 52 percent-to-47 percent margin.

Democrats are pressing their advantage, though they maintain the district's deck is stacked against them. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent about $60,000 on its own advertisements so far, according to FEC filings.

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