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North country no longer safe for Republicans

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For the better part of the last century, north country Republicans could count on one thing every two years: a member of their party would represent the region in the House of Representatives.

Not anymore. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, won a third election, this time without the help of a third-party candidate pushing him over the edge. When absentee ballots are counted, he could well earn more than 50 percent of the vote in his race against Watertown Republican Matthew A. Doheny, a technically insignificant but symbolically important milestone. He’s the victor, one-on-one. It’s a sign that this district could be a competitive seat for years to come, and reflects political trends that have been growing for years and could continue for years to come.

“It’s not like he’s running up John McHugh numbers in this district,” said Siena College Research Institute pollster Steven A. Greenberg, referring to the Republican Mr. Owens replaced in 2009 who typically won with upward of 65 percent of the vote. “I don’t think it will ever be an ultra-safe district for Bill Owens or any Democrat. I also don’t think it’s a slam-dunk Republican district.”

In his concession speech and in a message to supporters after it was clear that Mr. Owens had scored a 50 percent to 48 percent victory, Mr. Doheny said the district is no longer a safe one for Republicans.

“Even though our district was Republican on paper, President Obama won this district by a decisive six points,” Mr. Doheny said in an email message Friday. “No Republican challenger in the entire nation won in a district that the president carried — and I was no exception. I’m not making excuses. A loss is a loss. And it’s time for me to move on.”

His campaign was based upon the faulty assumption that Republicans would “come home” to his candidacy with the Conservative and Republican parties unified under one banner. Republicans have a 15 percentage-point enrollment advantage in the district, Mr. Greenberg said. Mr. Doheny missed out on the Conservative Party line in 2010, when he lost to Mr. Owens by a mere 1,995 votes; it went instead to Douglas L. Hoffman, whose defunct candidacy attracted more than 10,000 votes.

Those Republicans didn’t come home. On election night, Mr. Owens had expanded his lead from 2010, up by more than 4,000 votes. He might have won by even more without Green Party candidate Donald L. Hassig on the ballot.

President Barack Obama’s numbers in the congressional district are instructive. According to an analysis by Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group, Jefferson and Lewis counties voted in higher percentages for Mr. Obama than they had in 2008, though Republican Mitt Romney won both counties. He won Jefferson County by 2 points, and Lewis County by 8 points. Mr. Obama won St. Lawrence County by 0.1 percentage points fewer than he did in 2008, still good for 58 percent of the county’s vote, compared with 42 percent for Mr. Romney.

Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties also swung further in Mr. Obama’s favor than they had in 2008. Only five of the 12 counties in the district favored Mr. Romney. Mr. Obama won Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties, where Mr. Doheny expected to put up big numbers — and did, but not big enough.

Indeed, even with those strong coattails for Mr. Owens, Mr. Doheny outperformed Mr. Romney by about 4 percentage points.

Mr. Greenberg, the Siena pollster, said the north country has trended moderate for years, and it’s only been borne out for the past three elections.

On the issues, north country Republicans are trending moderate, and moving leftward. Four of the region’s Assembly members, three of whom are Republicans, voted to approve gay marriage, and voters did not throw them out. Then-Assemblywoman Dierdre K. Scozzafava, R-Gouverneur, missed out on the Conservative Party’s line in her 2009 run for Congress, but that was the decision of the party chairman, not the voters.

Compare that with the 27th Congressional District in western New York, where voters swung in Mr. Romney’s favor by several points and tended to espouse more conservative positions in Mr. Greenberg’s polls.

“That district only has an eight-point Republican enrollment edge, but is far more conservative and far more Republican” at the ballot box, Mr. Greenberg said.

Voters in that district elected Republican Chis Collins, a former Erie County executive who defeated Rep. Kathy Hochul, D-Amherst.

Asked how he won, Mr. Owens responded with his typically droll sense of humor, responding: “I won the most votes.”

Pressed, he said: “It is a heavily Republican district. But it’s a district looking for a moderate. John McHugh is a moderate. I’m a moderate. I think that that’s what voters are looking for.”

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