The topsy turvy story of the special election in New York-23

It was the last thing we wanted to hear. It was September 11, 2009. We had just begun shooting television commercials for Democrat Bill Owens in the upstate New York 23rd Congressional District special election and we were behind schedule. We were trying to ï¬Ât more into a day than was likely possible and far off in the distance we could hear the thump-thump-thump of a helicopter approaching the otherwise deserted airport tarmac where we were shooting. It meant everything had to stop.

Helicopters, airplanes, lawn mowers and barking dogs are the bane of any exterior video shoot. You shut down the camera, curse the Gods and wait for the sound to go away. Twenty-dollar bills can silence lawn mowers and convince dog owners to bring Fido inside, but aircraft are something you just have to stop and wait for. And we were in a hurry.
Democrat Bill Owens had just jumped into the special election campaign with two other candidates—Dede Scozzafava, the Republican nominee, and Tea Party champion Doug Hoffman who was running on the Conservative Party line.

Our early polling showed Scozzafava with a nine-point lead: 31 percent for Scozzafava, 22 percent for Owens and 15 percent for Hoffman. The seat had been in Republican hands for nearly 150 years, but after President Obama appointed Rep. John McHugh as Secretary of the Army, the seat was open. The special election was only seven weeks away. With Scozzafava, well known as a state legislator, and Bill Owens, a complete unknown Plattsburgh attorney with no electoral experience, we had little time to close the gap. And this helicopter wasn’t helping.

On paper, the race was winnable. Owens had kept the same consulting team together that had just won Scott Murphy’s NY-20 special election only four months earlier. Jef Pollock and Nick Gourevitch of Global Strategy Group were the pollsters and were joined by direct mail mavens Ed Peavey and Adnaan Muslim of Mission Control. My partner Steve Murphy and I (Murphy Putnam Media) handled the television and radio advertising. Jon Vogel and Joe Shafer of the DCCC, and campaign manager Brad Katz served as the nerve center of a campaign with national implications in the largest congressional
district east of the Mississippi River.

We all knew Scozzafava had great personal and political vulnerabilities, especially from her years in the New York State Assembly representing a Watertown district. And Hoffman was an unpredictable wild card who was always a part of our team’s political calculations. We wanted him to be a viable third party candidate in order to split the Republican and conservative vote with Scozzafava, but he could become dangerous if his outsider campaign caught ﬠre and, in a three-way dynamic, we could suffer given Scozzafava’s popularity in her Watertown base, where she had the support of a large number of Democrats.

The ï¬Ârst priority, however, was as conventional as it was critical: We needed to introduce Bill Owens to the voters. He was a former Air Force captain with a family history of military service who had served at the now shuttered Plattsburgh Air Force Base, and had since helped attract 2,000 jobs to the region as a corporate attorney by, in part, redeveloping the base. Hence, Bill was out on the tarmac telling his story, and the helicopter was a temporary annoyance. But annoyances can become omens. In this case, it was a good omen. When the helicopter came into view, it was obvious it would fly
straight through the background of our shot. We would have one chance to ï¬Âlm the commercial with a military-style helicopter flying directly behind Bill, bringing life to the deserted tarmac.

Owens, who had never made a commercial in his life, would have to be perfect with his lines—we couldn’t ask the helicopter to fly around for a second take. So I called “action” and hoped for the best. And Bill nailed it. It was a simple, yet strong, television commercial that laid the foundation for everything that followed. We had to put Bill, who was whip smart and a great candidate, into a position to win. The campaign had to be perfect; there would be unexpected developments, and the breaks had to go our way. A little luck wouldn’t hurt either, and that helicopter was an omen of things to come.

We knew two things from our early polling. First, once you informed the voters of the positives and negatives of the candidates, the race tightened into a near three-way tie. And second, we needed to dominate the jobs issue and demonstrate both a job-creating record and an agenda focused on economic development in a region of New York that was being hammered by the economic downturn. With Bill’s jobs message, we would be in good shape to win so long as Hoffman didn’t start to eat away at Scozzafava’s vote. But, of course, that is exactly what started to happen.

Almost immediately, the DCCC independent expenditure effort began attacking Scozzafava for her Albany record of middle class tax increases, while also supporting corporate tax breaks from which her business had beneï¬Âtted. Meanwhile, the NRCC was hitting Owens, accusing him of being a Democrat who would support a Pelosi-Obama agenda of tax hikes and
big government spending. And Hoffman was running attacks, largely ï¬Ânanced by the Club for Growth, that were hitting both Owens and Scozzafava—with the bulk of the attacks focused on Scozzafava for being a Democrat-in-disguise who supported abortion rights, same-sex marriage and the federal stimulus plan.

Our campaign allowed the DCCC independent expenditure to carry the negative message against Scozzafava in the early going while we ran positive advertising featuring Owens’ job-creating background and his affable personality. One ad, in particular, stood out from the crowd. It focused on the mystery of why retail milk prices continued to rise while prices
paid to milk producers were continuing to fall. We produced a folksy ad featuring Bill and a dairy farmer named Sam herding dairy cows with commodity price tickers (counting downward) floating over their bovine bodies. The ad’s tagline “Got Milk Money?” raised the ire of the California-based Milk Board, but armed with the legal precedent of fair use, free speech and the fact that Bill Owens wasn’t trying to sell milk, we kept the ad on the air through Election Day because of its overwhelming popularity.

Voters didn’t need to live in regions of the district rich in dairy farms to appreciate the humor and Bill’s personality in the ad. The “Milk Money” TV ad was an example of a seemingly small-bore, regionally focused ad actually working with the electorate at-large because it featured a candidate who didn’t take himself too seriously on an issue that affected voters’ pocketbooks. Showing Bill at ease in the dairy farm environment helped counter the NRCC attacks that Bill Owens was a liberal Democrat out of touch with the district. It didn’t hurt that dairy cows make for a fun TV ad, too.

Meanwhile, back in the crossï¬Âre of the independent expenditure ads, the result of the concentrated attacks on
Scozzafava was that she began to fall precipitously, and Hoffman starting moving up strongly in the Syracuse market and Owens’ home base of Plattsburgh. The only area where Scozzafava was holding her vote was in her home base of Watertown. Since so much of her hometown support came from Democrats, we were actually in third place in Watertown, the largest region of the district. Hoffman moved from third place into a district-wide lead with only two weeks until Election Day.

With his surge, our campaign pivoted to attacking Hoffman, and the DCCC independent expenditure followed suit shortly afterward. At this point, with Hoffman well ahead in public polling and our own surveys, we began to hope that Scozzafava would drop out of the race. It was clear she had no chance of winning and, in a largely conservative district, was pulling just enough Republicans and Democrats to put Hoffman into the lead.

But with Scozzafava seemingly committed to ï¬Ânishing the campaign, we attacked Hoffman on two fronts: 1) That by wanting to keep the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, Hoffman would add $500 billion to the deï¬Âcit, and 2) Hoffman had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from a group (the Club for Growth) that wanted to privatize Social Security. The attacks stalled his momentum and his negative rating went up by 30 points before Election Day. It didn’t help his campaign that his Tea Party background had helped fuel the impression that Hoffman was a stubborn ideologue. He was also a little-known, somewhat awkward ï¬Âgure to whom voters never particularly warmed up, and he had no real base to fall back upon when the going got tough.

Most importantly, through all of these attacks and counterattacks, we never stopped running a jobs message in our advertising and direct mail. We wanted to be sure voters never lost sight of Bill Owens’ record and focus on job creation. We were the only campaign that consistently spoke to the economic concerns that polling showed the voters were most concerned about.

On the Saturday before Election Day, the largest earthquake in the race occurred—Dede Scozzafava dropped out of the campaign. This is the sort of unexpected event that can either doom a campaign or create an enormous opportunity. The conventional wisdom was that her exit from the race would guarantee a Hoffman victory with the lion’s share of her supporters shifting to the conservative in the race. But that assumption was based upon a fallacy and fell victim to a faux pas. The fallacy was to assume that Scozzafava’s vote was largely Republican. Dede, in fact, had a large number of Democratic supporters for reasons stated earlier—her progressive record and the support of Democrats in her home base.

The faux pas was how Hoffman treated Scozzafava in the aftermath of her withdrawal. Upon hearing the news of Scozzafava’s departure from the race, Owens immediately praised her candidacy and reached out to her personally to see how she was holding up (without mentioning that he hoped he would have her support). Hoffman, on the other hand, essentially said “good riddance” in public comments and turned his back on Scozzafava. This gave us the opening to launch an aggressive effort behind the scenes to secure Scozzafava’s endorsement.

While we didn’t have tracking numbers over the weekend, our internal voter contact numbers indicated Hoffman was ahead by just 1.5 points on Sunday. The deck had been reshuffl ed by Scozzafava’s bombshell. With her Sunday endorsement of Bill Owens, as well as the endorsement of the Watertown Daily Times, the Watertown and Syracuse markets swung heavily in our direction.

This momentum continued through Election Day, and Bill Owens won the campaign with 48 percent of the vote to Hoffman’s 46 percent. Scozzafava collected 6 percent. It was a campaign where everything went right and was the sole good news for Democrats on an otherwise brutal November 3. With heavy losses in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorials, Bill Owens’ victory was a bright spot for national Democrats. It showed that Democrats could win a federal campaign with a strong economic message focused on jobs. And it showed that there was indeed a ceiling for the so-called Tea Party movement candidates who ran to the right of moderate Republicans.

Among a moderately conservative Upstate New York electorate, their brand of politics was no better than the failed national Republican brand. Or maybe it was all just the serendipity of a helicopter showing up in the right place at the right time. 

Mark Putnam is a Democratic media consultant whose highest proï¬Âle project was producing the half hour Obama TV special that aired before Election Day. He has helped elect six governors, seven U.S. Senators and dozens of House members. You can ï¬Ând his ï¬Ârm at