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New York 23: Another Train Wreck for House Republicans?

While Republican prospects for the 2010 Congressional elections are improving and the GOP is likely to win at least one, and quite possibly both, of this year’s gubernatorial elections, the special election to fill an open seat in New York’s 23rd district is trending the other way.

[IMGCAP(1)]A lack of campaign resources and a classic political squeeze from the left and the right have severely damaged the prospects of Republican Dede Scozzafava, a six-term state Assemblywoman from Watertown.

While initial polling showed Scozzafava leading Democratic attorney Bill Owens and Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman, Owens has caught Scozzafava in recent private polling, and Hoffman continues to gain strength, making him a considerable factor in the contest and a growing problem for Scozzafava down the stretch.

GOP insiders have grown extremely nervous about the race. They worry about Scozzafava’s poor fundraising, lack of a compelling message to Republican base voters and weak showing in polling in the crucial Syracuse media market, which makes up about 30 percent of the sprawling district.

“She needs a solid win in the Syracuse area, and she isn’t getting anything close to that,— one veteran dispassionate analyst from the area said. “And she is having problems raising money from Republicans, who point to her support for ‘card check’ and President [Barack] Obama’s stimulus package and say that she isn’t a real Republican.— Not a single House Republican voted for the stimulus bill.

Heavy TV advertising by the Club for Growth, which is backing Hoffman, in all three major media markets has peeled conservative voters away from the Republican, and GOP insiders worry that the bleeding will continue. Hoffman is also on TV, portraying Scozzafava as a “fake— Republican and a liberal Albany politician.

So far, conservative critics of Scozzafava have complained primarily about her record on taxes and spending, but some expect that her liberal positions on social issues, including abortion and gay marriage (which is mentioned in Hoffman’s spot), will soon become more of an issue. Both Scozzafava and Owens favor abortion rights, while Hoffman does not.

However, the Republican just received the endorsement from the National Rifle Association, and it could be important in fashioning her appeal to right-leaning voters in the district.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has slammed the Assemblywoman as a “typical Albany politician— in TV ads that charge that she supported tax breaks that her company benefited from “while raising taxes on you.—

While the National Republican Congressional Committee is advertising heavily for Scozzafava and doing everything it can to help her, the combined advertising of the DCCC, the Owens campaign and the Club for Growth has been overwhelming the Republican nominee. Scozzafava is now finally on the air in the Syracuse market, but she is simply not carrying her weight on TV.

“If Dede doesn’t raise money and get on TV, there is only one direction for her to go, and it’s down,— a thoughtful Republican said.

Democratic insiders, however, remain cautious about Owens’ chances in the race, noting that although Obama won the district narrowly, the party has no political infrastructure there. The Democratic performance in the district is 47.5 percent, according to the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a Democratic group.

Some Republicans worry that while the national environment has shifted significantly to their advantage from where it was when Democrats won a special election in northeastern New York earlier this year, Scozzafava is unable to take advantage of the shift, in part because of her record on taxes, support for a Democratic state budget and support of the stimulus package.

“Intensity is a huge problem. She doesn’t have a message to appeal to Republican voters who care about bigger government and higher taxes,— one Republican said.

GOP insiders also note that, as was the case in the 20th district special election, Democrats have once again picked a nominee who does not have a legislative record.

“Democrats got their blank-slate candidate, so we have nothing to hit him on,— groaned one Republican strategist who is familiar with the race.

Strategically, there are two big things to watch in the race. Do Democrats who like Scozzafava’s record in the Assembly and her position on key issues “come home— to Owens as Election Day nears, draining Scozzafava of one of her sources of support? And does Hoffman continue to peel more Republicans away from the Assemblywoman?

Owens, who is not insisting on a public option in the health care reform bill and does not support gay marriage, is a registered Independent. Yet he just received the endorsement of the Working Families Party even though Scozzafava’s husband, Ron McDougall, is a United Auto Workers member and president of one of the state’s central labor councils.

Capitol Hill Republicans are doing what they can to show that Scozzafava would be a part of their team.

NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) has publicly embraced her, and on Friday Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas) released a statement endorsing her as “the only Republican who can win— and invoking the name of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to try to mobilize Republican voters behind Scozzafava. Hensarling and Sessions, of course, are largely unknown back in the New York district.

With three weeks to go, this contest is very much up for grabs. The three-way race makes for a number of possible scenarios, including ones that have Scozzafava finishing first, second or even third. She is in real trouble.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.