Republicans would like to forget the special election battle that raged in New York’s 23rd district last year, the one that pitted the moderate and conservative wings of the party against each other and ultimately led to a Democrat winning the seat for the first time in a century.
But as the state GOP establishment starts to line up behind businessman Matt Doheny — and against accountant Doug Hoffman — some Republicans fear that a three-way race replay is exactly what they could get.
Hoffman said in a recent interview that he was confident he will win the GOP nomination in the Sept. 14 primary, but he stopped short of saying he would not stay in the race and run on another party line if he doesn’t win.
“The key factors, as in last year’s race, I had the grass-roots support and I’m bringing that grass-roots support in this year, and I’m going to cultivate it further, and I’m sure they still know what my positions are,” Hoffman said.
Former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole, who supported Hoffman in his bid against GOP state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava last year and recently held a fundraiser for him in Washington, said a divided electorate is a legitimate concern for Republicans.
“They are very worried we won’t be united in November, so obviously you got, I would say, two very good candidates, and we are hopeful that they can settle it in the primary,” the Oklahoma Republican said.
But unlike the last race, Cole said after the primary he would support the nominee — regardless of whether Hoffman is chosen.
“I just felt Doug deserved help for having stepped up and saved us from a big mistake, so I’ll help him,” Cole said. “But if he’s not successful in winning the Republican nomination, I’ll support the Republican candidate.”
Alison Power, a spokeswoman for Doheny, indicated that, unlike the special election, this race would not be an ideological battle.
“There is very little philosophically that separates Matt from Hoffman,” Power wrote in an e-mail. “We believe that Matt can communicate his conservative agenda better than Hoffman and can raise substantially more resources than Hoffman can.”
Power also said Doheny is assuming Hoffman will continue his campaign even if he loses the GOP nomination.
“The bottom line is he feels he can win whether Hoffman is in the race in November or not,” she said.
But the two candidates’ respective endorsements may be among the first signs that trouble is brewing again.
Doheny has the backing of the New York Independence Party, as well as nine of the district’s 11 GOP county committee chairmen.
Hoffman has the endorsement of the Conservative Party, the same banner that he ran under last fall, as well as the New York Right to Life Party and FreedomWorks PAC, led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).
Armey played a large role in derailing Scozzafava during last year’s special election.
Conservatives deemed Scozzafava’s views too liberal and led a successful campaign against her that hampered her fundraising and led to her eventual withdrawal and endorsement of now-Rep. Bill Owens (D) just days before the election. Owens defeated Hoffman 50 percent to 45 percent.
The Club for Growth, another force in the special election, has not yet made an endorsement in the primary. Club spokesman Mike Connolly said the group would be watching the race closely as it develops.
“The Club PAC obviously has great respect for Doug Hoffman and we believe he’d make a great Congressman,” he said in an e-mail. “We’re just finishing up with this barrage of June primaries and are starting to turn our attention to the August/September races.”
Hoffman’s fundraising has lagged since the special election, when he raised more than $1 million in the final weeks of the contest. New fundraising reports will be filed next month, but as of the end of March, Hoffman had just $263,000 in the bank while Doheny had $813,000.
Hoffman said he was not concerned about his early fundraising disadvantage.
“There’s a primary going on,” he said. “That is certainly creating a division as to what [potential donors] may think — a lot of them are just going to wait and see.”
Hoffman added that given his name ID in the district, Doheny is going to need extra money in order to catch up.
“My primary opponent is going to have to spend 10 times the money than I have to spend to get anywhere near the name recognition that I have throughout the district,” Hoffman said.
Steven Greenberg, a pollster for Siena Research Institute in New York, said Republicans have reason to worry about a divisive primary.
“My thought is this is a district that Republicans should win,” Greenberg said.
He said that the Republican division is “one of the only ways for a Democrat to win” the 23rd district.
“I had thought Congressman Owens was likely to be a short-term Congressman, but now it certainly appears that is not the case,” Greenberg said.
Democrats said privately that the GOP division gives them an edge in a district where Republicans have a 46,000-person registration advantage over Democrats.
The NRCC spent nearly $1 million trying to hold on to the seat in the special election, but said it is going to sit the primary out.
“Voters will pick the nominee on Sept. 14, and we are confident that the winner will have the support necessary to defeat Nancy Pelosi’s rubber stamp, Bill Owens,” NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said.
“It’ll sort itself out. [The candidates] have to sort it out through the proper channels,” echoed Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), deputy chairman of the NRCC. “Primaries are the best place to pick nominees.”