Long considered a Republican stronghold, in 2009, the dynamics of New York’s northernmost Congressional district shifted. In today’s installment of WAMC’s special series The Vote, North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley assesses the win by Democrat Bill Owens and the political winds affecting one of the largest districts in the East.
Northern New York’s 21st congressional district is a 16,000-square mile area stretching from Lake Champlain on the east to the St. Lawrence River in the west. For nearly 150 years, the seat had been held by a Republican representative. In 2009, Republican Congressman John McHugh resigned to become Secretary of the Army, forcing a special election.
During the campaign, a rift erupted between centrist Republican Dede Scozzafava and Tea Party candidate Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava dropped out of the race three days before voters went to the polls and endorsed Owens. According to the New York State Board of Elections, Hoffman drew 69,553 votes and Scozzafava received 8,582. Democrat Bill Owens captured the seat with a 3,584 vote lead, totaling 73,137.
Owens went on to win full terms in 2010 and 2012.
Syracuse University’s Grant Reeher, the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at the Maxwell School of Citizenship Director and Professor of Political Science, credits Owens’ win to the moderate stances held by past Republicans.
And that’s why Congressman Bill Owens himself believes he won the office. Owens says the perception of the district as a Republican stronghold for 150 years is somewhat skewed.
Owens admits his initial win in the 2009 special election was hugely impacted by the split that occurred between the Republican and Tea Party candidates at a time when the Tea Party was ascendant nationally.
University of Virginia Center for Politics’ Sabato’s Crystal Ball is a weekly newsletter that focuses on American national campaigns and elections. Managing Editor Kyle Kondik notes that while the Tea Party-Republican split aided Owens, the dynamics of the district are changing.
That reflects the 2010 election results. Owens won based on support in the northeastern part of the district, but lost in the western and southern counties.
According to the NYS Board of Elections, Owens won that year by 1,995 votes with a total of 82,232. Republican Matt Doheny received 80,237 and Independent Doug Hoffman drew 10,507
In 2012 Owens again won a close election. In a rematch, he defeated Doheny by 4,985 votes. Green Party Candidate Donald Hassig drew 4,174 votes in that race.
Plattsburgh State Professor of Political Science Tom Konda notes the 21st is still a district that could go either Republican or Democrat, but expects the longer Owens stays in office, the greater an edge he will maintain.
There are two Republican candidates running against Owens in the 2014 election, with a third Republican considering a campaign. Elise Stefanik, a businesswoman from Westport, worked in the domestic policy and chief of staff’s office of the George W. Bush administration. She did not return calls. Republican Joe Gilbert of DeKalb Junction is an Army veteran who served as the St. Lawrence County Emergency Services Director and is a member of the Tea Party. The first-time candidate believes the scope and scale of problems facing the country are motivating conservative candidates to challenge Owens.
The Campbell Public Affairs Institute’s Grant Reeher believes the North Country’s Republican party has, for the most part, learned from its past mistakes, and Owens will face contenders in each election.
Sabato’s Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik ranks New York’s 21st district as one of the most competitive in the nation, with the upcoming race leaning Democratic.
Green Party candidate Donald Hassig also faced off against Congressman Owens in 2012, receiving less than 2 percent of the vote. Although he dropped out and endorsed Owens three days prior to election day, he has announced a new campaign for the Congressional seat in the 2014 campaign.