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Can Jane Corwin avoid Dede Scozzafava's fate? (Photo: Corwin Facebook site)
Can Jane Corwin avoid Dede Scozzafava's fate? (Photo: Corwin Facebook site)

NY GOP scrambles to avoid repeat of Scozzafava-Hoffman debacle

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Next week voters in western New York will elect a new member of Congress.

The 26th district is conservative territory, but Republicans are worried that they could see a repeat of the debacle in the North Country that already cost them one House seat.

In 2009, tea party candidate Doug Hoffman and Republican Dede Scozzafava split the conservative vote in the 23rd district House race.

That opened the door to a special election victory by Bill Owens.

Now the GOP is scrambling to hold onto a seat against a Democrat and a well-known businessman who's running on the tea party line.

Brian Mann has our story.

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Jack Davis, a businessman and former Democrat, is running on a tea party ballot line (Photo:  Davis campaign website)

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Republican Chris Lee, who is married, resigned abruptly back in February after it was revealed that he posted racy photographs of himself on Craigslist.

Despite the scandal, the GOP widely expected to hold the seat without much difficulty. 

But fair or not, sometimes one moment can redefine a political campaign.   In New York’s 26th congressional district race, that moment was captured last week on a Youtube video.

"Jack, why did you back out of the debate?” a man asks.

“You want punched out?”  Davis replies.

The video, first posted by Republicans, shows third party candidate Jack Davis. 

He’s a businessman and former Democrat who’s running on a tea party ballot line after being endorsed by one faction of the tea party movement.

Davis is apparently slapping at a cameraman, who turns out to be the chief of staff of Jane Corwin.  She’s the Republican in the race.   

Political observers say this kind of muddle and melodrama have left Corwin vulnerable in a part of western New York that Republicans usually dominate.

"It was the Republican candidate’s race to lose and she may be losing it," says Dan Fischer news director at WBTA, an AM radio station in Batavia New York. 

The small city sits in the conservative heartland of the district, halfway between Buffalo and Rochester.

Fischer thinks Republicans got sidetracked, trying to convince voters that Davis isn’t a legitimate conservative.

But Corwin’s supporters are clearly worried by polls showing Davis biting off a big chunk of Republican voters. 

Several tea party groups have rushed to endorse Corwin, accusing Davis of playing the spoiler.

Still, Republican state assemblyman Steve Hawley points from Batavia points out that Davis is a millionaire, wealthy enough to finance his own campaign.

Davis has also run for congress three times before, which means he’s better known in parts of the district than the Republican or the Democrat.

"He has better name recognition and as you know, that’s very very important," Hawley notes.

He says all this has local GOP leaders concerned that they could see a repeat of the special election defeats in the North Country.

"I think there are probably some people who have looked at the race in the North Country with Dede Scozzafava and what happened there.  They're looking at the race with Jim Tedisco and Scott Murphy, who was briefly a congressman, and what happened there against all odds.  And I think they're looking at this the same way."

While Republicans here were wrestling with a third-party challenger, their leaders back in Washington also chose this spring to unveil a controversial Medicare reform plan.   

Democrat Kathy Hochul pounced, accusing Jane Corwin of supporting an effort to dismantle the popular program.    Here she is speaking during a debate on WGRZ-TV. 

"The truth is that it is a voucher program and Jane knows it.  Even the Wall Street Journal even said that this ends Medicare as we know it."

Corwin has scrambled to explain her views on Medicare, insisting that she would never vote for a plan that would impact those seniors who now rely on the program.

"Kathy is the one with the scare tactic, because the reality is that this not eliminating Medicare," she argued. 

But even many Republicans, including Hawley, say the Corwin campaign handled the issue clumsily. 

"I think they may have made an error in the beginning, not responding to those scare tactics."

Dan Fischer agrees and says questions about Medicare put a key voting bloc back in play.

"The demographics of this town definitely tend to be older and nowhere is it more pronounced that Medicare is the third rail of politics than right here," he says.

If Republican leaders here are worried, so are rank and file conservative voters like Janet Burheit, an attorney from Buffalo.  A Corwin supporter, she’s dismayed that Democrats might pull off an upset.

"I think Kathy Hochul might win," Burheit says, adding that she thinks GOP leaders might have "screwed it up."

With polls showing the race nearly dead even, both parties and outside activist groups are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into last-minute ads and get out the vote efforts.

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