The brief joy over Rep. Bill Owens’s (D-N.Y.) retirement may have brought back nightmares of 2009 for Republicans. But maybe they shouldn’t be so scared about a deep party schism as they look to win back a competitive seat that’s eluded them for years.
Democrats were quickly pointing to GOP infighting as one possibility that could help them keep the tough seat. That scenario played out in Owens’s initial win after former Rep. John McHugh (R) stepped down to become secretary of the Army. The New York GOP endorsed Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava and the Conservative Party endorsed Doug Hoffman. As the Tea Party movement was growing, many balked at Scozzafava’s more liberal positions, and Hoffman gained traction as the race attracted national attention. Scozzafava withdrew just before the vote and endorsed Owens.
But time may have healed some of those wounds. While the now-open seat is sure to attract even more GOP interest, Conservative Party leaders say they’re impressed with former Bush White House staffer Elise Stefanik. The 29-year-old Republican has drawn praise from many national strategists, too.
“She’s a great candidate, absolutely great,” New York Conservative Party Executive Director Shaun Marie told The Hill. “If I lived in the district, I would absolutely cast a vote for her.”
Marie said Stefanik was scheduled to address a party conference later that month, and she was the only candidate so far the party had spoken with, though other candidates may have reached out.
Tea Party leader and retired Army Major Joseph Gilbert and activist Michael Ring are also in the GOP race. A fourth, John James, the actor who played Jeff Colby on the television show “Dynasty,” is considering launching a bid according to local reports.
The state’s Conservative Party is well-aware of the district’s controversial past, and it’s something they’re even proud of, believing it’s pushed other, more-conservative candidates to the forefront.
“The whole Tea Party movement practically started in 2009 with this district, which we played a very big part of,” said Marie.
"Scozzafava’ed” almost became a verb in the political lexicon thanks to this district if an establishment or centrist candidate was being challenged from the right by a more conservative candidate. Into the 2010 GOP wave, the number of Tea Party candidates rose and helped knock off Democratic incumbents.
But the movement that helped propel the GOP into power has also come back to bite Republicans. Lawmakers have found themselves fending off Tea Party primary challengers, and some flawed candidates in other GOP-held open seats this cycle have strategists worried.
For national Republicans who are looking to unite their party and stave off candidates that could torpedo their chances in competitive districts, there's no better place to start healing wounds than in the 21st District, where their problems began.
Marie said both parties are well aware of the implications a split primary for their now-open seat could have in aiding Democrats. Hoffman ran again in 2010, but businessman Matt Doheny got the GOP line on the November ballot. Hoffman bowed out before the general, but his name remained on the ballot and he still got more than 10,500 votes. Doheny ran again in 2012, got both party’s lines, but still lost by two points.
Marie said Republicans in the district “realize how important it is to have a united front….we can’t go on this way with ObamaCare. We need to have strong Republican conservative voices.”
But Scozzafava may not be completely gone from this district. One Democratic strategist said that while her endorsement helped Owens win in 2009, she could now help them keep it, especially a district that’s near and dear to Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-N.Y.) heart. Former Rep. Scott Murphy (D-N.Y.), who lost in 2010 and formerly represented part of the district, is another name mentioned for Democrats.
“As we know from the first time, there’s not a big bench in [the district]. I wouldn’t be shocked if [Israel] isn’t calling Dede Scozzafava right now” and asking her to run, said the strategist. Scozzafava officially joined the Democratic Party after her loss. “He doesn’t want to lose a district in his own state.”