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Doug Hoffman listens to a dairy farmer discuss his concerns.
Doug Hoffman listens to a dairy farmer discuss his concerns.

Hoffman counting on grassroots push in NY-23 primary

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Republican candidates for the 23rd Congressional district seat are making late summer pushes toward a September primary. Alexandria Bay businessman Matt Doheny has shored up support from the GOP establishment. All of the party's county chairs have endorsed him. Tea Party insurgent Doug Hoffman says he relishes the outsider status, just as he did in last year's special election that brought him to within a few percentage points of Democrat and Congressman Bill Owens. Hoffman trails Doheny significantly in fundraising. Lacking the get-out-the-vote infrastructure of a major party, Hoffman will need a big grassroots push to win. As David Sommerstein reports, whether he gets it is the central question of his campaign.

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Matt Doheny enjoys GOP party support, from the likes of former Congressman David Martin

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David Sommerstein
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It’s a sunny Monday afternoon on Gouverneur’s Main Street.  I’ve been invited to watch Doug Hoffman meet and greet supporters in the St. Lawrence County village.

When I arrive, Hoffman’s standing quietly in front of a law office, hands in pockets, in a clean blue button-down and pressed tan slacks.  A woman next him’s working a cell phone and pouring over a notebook of names and numbers.

She’s done her homework, lining up people who are interested in meeting me and we’re just trying to catch them at a free moment.  You can’t just barge in and say hello, when we can catch ‘em, we run over and say hi…

Hoffman says they’ve been to see the hospital’s CEO, diners at Greg’s Italian restaurant, a real estate dealer, and some other small business owners.  But when a few people amble past on the sidewalk, Hoffman doesn’t introduce himself.

Hoffman courts the image of an everyman, a Lake Placid accountant, and contrasts it with Matt Doheny’s background as a trader on Wall Street, even though Doheny grew up nearby in the Thousand Islands.

I’m the candidate for Main Street in this district.  I grew up here.  I served in the Army here.  I trained at Fort Drum.  I started my businesses, volunteering in the community and helping to actually create jobs.  The people, when they go to the polls, are going to remember that, and they are going to look at the fact that I am from Main Street and not Wall Street.

A congressional campaign often attracts an entourage of local officials, but none are here today.  Village Mayor Dorothy Vorce says Hoffman called her on the phone, but their schedules didn’t coincide for an in-person visit.

The county lawmakers who represent Gouverneur didn’t know Hoffman was in town.

I had heard about it from a fellow I was playing golf with.

Republican Alex MacKinnon is a Matt Doheny supporter, but he says candidates usually call.

They don’t very often come to Gouverneur, but when they do, they’ll call ahead of time to have people there.  They’ll beat the bushes a little bit to get folks to come and we like to go.

All 11 Republican county chairmen have endorsed Doheny, including Franklin County’s Jim Ellis, who strongly supported Hoffman in last fall’s special election.  Ellis’ colleague in Franklin County, Paul Maroun, said of Hoffman, “I try really hard not to support losers.”

But the Hoffman campaign says it doesn’t need the political establishment to win.  Hoffman cites a poll he paid for that shows a 32 point lead over Doheny.

The base of the Republican party is strongly in my court.  Our focus right now is to defeat Bill Owens and to keep that base strongly committed to me.

At least on this day, that grassroots groundswell is nowhere to be seen.  The one volunteer making the phone calls doesn’t want to give her name or talk to me on the record.

He answers only to us.  He answers only to We the People.  Ladies and gentlemen, Doug Hoffman…

On a different day, about 40 people come to see Hoffman in the Champlain Valley town of Port Henry.  Most are senior citizens.

When you go to one of our functions, it looks like grandparents day at the elementary school.

Mark Barrie heads UNITEA, the Tea Party chapter that’s sponsored this event.  He says one of his biggest challenges is many of his members don’t have e-mails.  So he has 200 volunteers starting a snail-mail campaign to get out the vote for Hoffman.  Barrie says it’ll work.

There’s no doubt in my mind that when we launch this campaign about three weeks before September 14th, we’ll have several hundred letters.  We’ll be able to produce tens of thousands of letters, and I think it’s going to be very effective.

Hoffman also faces the obstacle of fundraising.  He has less than half the cash on hand of the Doheny campaign.  That translates to fewer media buys key to competing in the sprawling district. 

In Port Henry, Hoffman says his average donation is down 27 bucks from last year.  But he flips that stat on its head, saying that’s good.

That’s because my contributions are coming from the people.  They’re not coming from big influence, big money, big groups.

That kind of rhetoric resonates with lifelong Port Henry resident Brett Thompson.

Well, he’s just a normal guy.  He doesn’t pull any punches.  He goes right straight to the point, and we’re just sick and tired of regular politicians.

Both Republicans want to tap into anger at Washington to defeat Democrat Bill Owens.  They share similar views…anti-abortion and same sex marriage…for tax cuts, less spending, and a get-tough stance on immigration.

As for Hoffman’s poll that puts him up in this race, Matt Doheny says he’s not doing polling.  And he believes the grassroots is on his side.

Could we run our own self-serving poll and come up by a 30-point lead?  I’m sure there are gurus in the country that can do it for us.  In terms of grassroots, when you go out for almost 8 months now, seven days a week, 16 hours a day, putting over 60,000 miles on my truck, Bessie, you get to see a few people.  And every single time, we go out and we’re more and more successful.

Hoffman has a battered truck of his own.  He too boasts of putting thousands of miles on it to reach voters.  Back in Gouverneur, Hoffman stops at a dairy farm…not to talk to a group of farmers, but to one farmer.

The guy’s still in his tractor cutting hay, so Hoffman chats up some Amish men working on a barn.  Then he walks back into the fields to hear the farmer’s views on the dairy industry.

The visit takes more than half an hour.  I ask if it’s worth it to reach one voter.

Like I said, I’m from Main Street, not Wall Street.  It’s the people that go to the poll to vote and it’s the people that I’ll represent in the 23rd district and it’s very important that I understand what their concerns and their problems are and how I can help to solve them.

Last year, Hoffman played the darling of the conservative Tea Party movement.  Whether the Tea Party turns out to be a grass roots surge or a vocal minority this year will largely determine Hoffman’s fate on primary day, September 14.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein.

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