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GOP May Lose Stronghold In Upstate New York

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Republicans say their party is bouncing back after four years of tough political defeats. But in Upstate New York, the GOP is struggling to hold on to a House seat that could go to a Democrat for the first time in history. With a special election just three weeks away, Republicans have been flummoxed by a third party challenge from a more conservative candidate.

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN: Republican State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava lives in Gouverneur, a small town smack on the New York-Canada border. This staunchly Roman Catholic district has been a GOP stronghold forever. So when she voted last year to support same-sex marriage, Scozzafava knew she was pushing the limits of the Republican Party's big tent.

DEDE SCOZZAFAVA: There have definitely been political consequences. My own party has cringed in some aspects and thought that perhaps I wasn't politically viable once I voted for this issue.

MANN: Scozzafava is also pro-choice on abortion and supports President Obama's economic stimulus plan. But this summer, GOP leaders embraced her anyway, tapping Scozzafava to vie for the seat vacated by Republican John McHugh, who was confirmed last month as Army secretary. Jude Seymour, a political correspondent for the Watertown Daily Times, says Republican leaders were desperate to hold on to the seat, and going with a moderate seemed like the safest bet.

JUDE SEYMOUR: When the Republicans picked Dede Scozzafava, they were confident that they had picked the candidate who could win.

MANN: It seemed like a reasonable calculation. President Obama won here in November. And last spring, Republicans lost a bruising special election in the neighboring district, after they ran a party line conservative. But the Scozzafava choice set off a firestorm in the national conservative movement.

DOUG HOFFMAN: Forget the Republican Party bosses. I believe that the voters in the Republican Party are looking for a candidate like me.

MANN: That's Doug Hoffman, a political newcomer who's running on the conservative party line, launching attack ads like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

MANN: And pretending can't make you a Reagan Republican. See, an Albany politician, liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava twice voted for gay marriage. She...

MANN: Through the summer, a Republican civil war erupted with party leaders firing broadsides at conservatives and an alphabet soup of conservative groups blasting away at Scozzafava.

DAVID KEATING: They picked a candidate who is way out of the Republican mainstream on economic issues.

MANN: David Keating heads the conservative group, Club for Growth, based in Washington, D.C. Keating's group is spending a quarter million dollars backing Hoffman.

KEATING: It also sends a message to the Republican Party that we're sick and tired of your big spending habits. And Dede Scozzafava is that kind of big spending Republican that many people are sick of.

MANN: This feud on the right has right has crippled Scozzafava's campaign, according to the latest poll from the independent Siena Research Institute. After leading early, she now trails her Democratic opponent, Bill Owens, by four points. Only 40 percent of Republicans say they'll vote for her. Jude Seymour with the Watertown Times says the GOP is stumbling toward a major embarrassment.

SEYMOUR: Any time you lose a seat that you've held since the Civil War, I think that can be considered a blunder.

MANN: Complicating the race even further is the fact that Democrat Bill Owens is fairly conservative, and unlike Scozzafava, he opposes same-sex marriage.

BILL OWENS: I think that the word marriage has some very important religious connotations, and I would not be in support of a bill that addressed it in that fashion.

MANN: The latest poll shows Owens solidifying support among Democrats, thanks in part to high-profile support from Bill Clinton and from Barack Obama. The president is holding a fundraiser for Owens next week in New York City.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in Saranac Lake, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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