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Tea Party Fracturing Over New York Special Election

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David Bellavia’s potential campaign for the House has divided New York’s tea party community.

Once again, the tea party movement is poised to play a critical role in deciding a New York special election.
 
But major questions remain in New York’s 26th district over whether grass-roots conservatives will support the establishment favorite, state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin (R), or the tea party’s sentimental favorite, Iraq War veteran David Bellavia (R).
 
Their decision could help deliver the traditionally Republican seat to Democrats, although Bellavia appears to be running as a third-party candidate regardless.
 
Just two days after the seven local GOP county chairmen unanimously selected Corwin as the Republican nominee, Bellavia formed a Congressional exploratory committee with the Federal Election Commission.
 
It was, according to Bellavia’s statement, “another milestone on the road to the United States Congress.” And he’s taking his candidacy seriously.
 
Roll Call has learned that Bellavia will secure a national fundraiser in the coming days and plans to add a national consultant in the next week. Regardless of whether local tea party groups openly support his candidacy, Bellavia could tap into the national conservative grass-roots movement to fund a formidable campaign.

“He’s going to have the tea party’s support,” Bellavia spokesman Bill Hagan told Roll Call on Thursday. “We’ve been inundated with e-mails and people showing up at his house. It’s been overwhelming.”
 
New York’s tea party community, however, is divided. There are signs that local conservatives learned from the 2009 special election in New York’s 23rd district, where a tea party-backed challenger split the Republican vote, ultimately handing the seat to a Democrat for the first time in more than a century.
 
“We’re not entirely unhappy with Jane Corwin,” Julianne “Jul” Thompson, chief organizer and co-founder of the largest tea party organization in the western New York district, TEA New York, told Roll Call this week. “She actually does embody a lot of the tea party values. She is fairly conservative.”
 
Thompson and her husband, who all but endorsed Bellavia in a Buffalo newspaper earlier in the week, have also privately met with the potential third-party challenger in recent days.

Thompson said she has some concern about Corwin’s positions on abortion, the environment and stem cell research. Corwin told local reporters this week she opposes partial-birth abortions and opposes government funding of abortion, but she has supported legal abortion in the first trimester.

While she concedes that Bellavia has more traditionally conservative positions on abortion, Thompson also sees the danger in a three-way race. The question is whether the Thompsons will make an endorsement in the race. Their silence, of course, could be seen as a tacit approval for Bellavia.

“We’re not thrilled about a third-party run,” Julianne Thompson said. “But Bellavia seems determined to run a third-party line, with or without tea party support.”

Corwin has been accumulating endorsements from other conservatives. The Monroe County Conservative Party gave her its support Thursday evening, and the tea party-backed 2010 gubernatorial candidate, Carl Paladino, who lives in the district, has come out in her favor as well.

“I’m a proud member of the tea party movement in New York, and together we helped change the face of Congress in November,” Paladino said in a statement distributed by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is painfully aware of the risks associated with a three-way race. “Jane Corwin will be another member in our movement to take our country back.”

And the leader of another New York-based tea party ally, Primary Challenge, also backed Corwin:

“I know that Jane Corwin is the right person to represent New York’s 26th District in Washington and she has my unwavering support,” said the group’s founder, Lenny Roberto. “As the founder of Primary Challenge, the last thing we need is a third-party challenge that could give liberals in Washington another vote to spend taxpayers’ hard-earned money.”

Indeed, Democrats’ best hope for taking the seat is a three-way race that divides the Republican vote.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) has consistently downplayed expectations, noting that Democratic presidential candidates were soundly defeated in the district in both 2004 and 2008.

New York Democrats, however, are in no rush to select a candidate.

Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul has emerged as the most likely to win the nod from the Democratic county chairmen, but there are a handful of potential nominees.
 
Local Democratic leaders have yet to begin the interviewing process in earnest, and there’s nothing to suggest they need to rush. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has introduced a bill to the state legislature to reconcile an issue with the state election law. The complication could extend the timing of the special election by 70 to 80 days.
 
It was the perception that Republican County chairmen rushed the process that angered the local tea party movement, and it may have also ultimately led to Bellavia’s decision to seek a third-party line.
 
“How sad, the GOP leaders stuck their finger high in the air and told the TEA Party to stick it,” TEA New York co-founder Rus Thompson said the night Corwin was selected. “They have endorsed Corwin, they have now set their own table and invited a third-party candidate to challenge them for this Congressional seat.”

Bellavia should have plenty of time to raise money. His first fundraiser is scheduled for early next month.

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