Parties Turn to Ground Game in New York

Posted November 2, 2009 at 6:37pm

In a race that has received a disproportionate amount of national attention in the last week, the two remaining candidates running for former Rep. John McHugh’s (R-N.Y.) upstate House seat spent the past 48 hours engaged in an all-out ground war before voters head to the polls Tuesday.

But in addition to the typical round-the-clock get-out-the-vote activity, the campaigns of Democrat Bill Owens and Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman are scrambling to consolidate the support of new converts and reach out to other voters set afloat by Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava’s abrupt withdrawal from the race Saturday.

Neither side is putting much stock in the latest polling, conducted in the midst of Scozzafava’s withdrawal and subsequent endorsement of Owens on Sunday, and strategists are focused on getting voters to the polls in the largely rural 23rd district, which stretches along the state’s northern and eastern borders.

Despite late polls that showed Hoffman in the lead, “there are no givens at all,— said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion advocacy group Susan B. Anthony List and an early Hoffman backer. Tuesday’s vote is “the only poll and the only thing that really matters now,— she said.

Former New York Democratic Party Chairwoman June O’Neill, who is contributing to efforts to woo support for Owens in the district, dismissed a Siena College poll conducted Sunday, saying “almost none of the impact of [Scozzafava’s] support [for Owens] is reflected in those numbers.—

O’Neill is convinced that Scozzafava’s endorsement will influence wavering voters. She said there were already signs of a backlash among Scozzafava supporters, who resent the fact that she was “driven out of the race by— conservatives. The result, she said, has been an “outpouring of support and volunteers and, frankly, campaign cash— for the Owens campaign.

Based on party line alone, Hoffman is positioned to gain a larger share of votes from Scozzafava’s departure, given that the majority of her supporters were registered Republicans and that he has now secured the backing of the GOP apparatus. But Hoffman’s most tangible gain may be the party’s get-out-the-vote infrastructure, which will provide a more comprehensive counterbalance to the labor union ground game behind Owens than the various conservative groups that had been conducting outreach on Hoffman’s behalf.

Asked about the campaign’s get-out-the-vote operations, Hoffman spokesman Rob Ryan directed inquiries to the party committees, which are conducting their own independent outreach to voters, after a quick pivot from Scozzafava to Hoffman. Ryan also said the campaign is working with the district’s 11 county parties, where most of the leadership flipped over to Hoffman’s side just this weekend.

Owens, meanwhile, has consolidated support from labor, with many of the unions that had backed Scozzafava shifting to Owens since the Republican nominee’s endorsement of her one-time rival Sunday. They include the Laborers Local 332, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 97 and the United Auto Workers CAP Region 9. The New York AFL-CIO, which had stayed on the sidelines, also announced it was supporting Owens.

And the chairman of the state Independence Party, an influential force along with labor unions in garnering support for now-Rep. Scott Murphy (D) in the neighboring 20th district special election, switched his endorsement from Scozzafava to Owens.

Dannenfelser acknowledged that labor’s unified support for Owens presented a formidable challenge for Hoffman’s surrogates.

“The unions are clearly rocket scientists at voter turnout,— she said. Hoffman supporters, however, have an edge in “the level of intensity,— she said. “The intensity is the difference.—

The Susan B. Anthony List on Monday had at least 40 volunteers conducting canvassing in Watertown, the base of Scozzafava’s support in the district. And they also conducted 50,000 live get-out-the-vote calls “targeting pro-life and pro-marriage voters,— in conjunction with the National Organization for Marriage, Dannenfelser said.

The Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that was one of the first national conservative groups to endorse Hoffman, is also conducting a voter mobilization phone call featuring former New York Gov. George Pataki (R), who endorsed Hoffman last week, going out to 75,000 likely Republican and conservative voters. The Club for Growth and its members have directly and indirectly contributed more than $1 million to the effort to elect Hoffman, the organization estimates, more than half of that on television and radio advertising. The group’s last ad will remain on air through Tuesday.

Dannenfelser said the backing of the party will help in the effort to push Hoffman across the finish line, but she did express regret that it came so late. “They only just started this a couple days ago,— she noted. “The Democratic Party has been at this a while for Owens.—

“It makes it a little harder, but certainly they are capable— of mounting a substantial operation, Dannenfelser added.

Hoffman’s voter outreach will also be a test of how well a campaign can rally voters based almost entirely on national rather than local issues. Though he has corralled the support of local party leaders in the last few days, his initial campaign support came largely from outside the district. Just a quarter of his contributions through Oct. 14 were even from New York state-based donors. Owens, in contrast, received 82 percent of his donations from New Yorkers in the same time period.

Hoffman has also been berated by the editorial board of a local newspaper for his limited grasp of parochial issues.

Yet Hoffman has seen his support surge among local voters over the past month, despite the negative editorials and the national interest group involvement. And he continues to enjoy strong favorable ratings among voters in the polls.

O’Neill, however, believed that “at the end of the day, most people will vote in their own enlightened self-interest,— and for district voters, that involves issues related to the Fort Drum Air Force base, dairy farms and water levels in the Saint Lawrence Seaway. And she expected that Hoffman’s positions, including his pledge not to support earmarks, which Democrats say could deprive Fort Drum of funding, would ultimately come back to haunt him. “I think people are going to see that for what it is and I think they will rebuke it,— she said.