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Doheny slowly winning over conservatives

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PLATTSBURGH — Matthew A. Doheny is buzzing around the room, spending most of the evening on his feet, on the move, shaking hands, smiling, laughing, joking about his concerns that one attendee, the older gentleman who sang “God Bless America,” will steal away his fiancée.

If there’s resistance to Mr. Doheny on the right — and clearly, there is some — it’s not evident in these one-on-one interactions at the Upstate New York Tea Party’s mixer Friday night at the Westside Ballroom.

One of his potential opponents is, more or less, just sitting there, waiting for voters to make the first move. The other one is about 170 miles away, to the chagrin of UNYTEA leaders.

But the domination Mr. Doheny displays in being willing and able to communicate his message, and his growing support from Conservative Party leaders and conservatives in general, has yet to win over everybody.

That was on display in Friday night’s straw poll, which Mr. Doheny won with 64 percent of the vote. Timothy Stampfler, the candidate who didn’t do much campaigning Friday night, won 18 percent of the straw poll vote. His candidacy could die on the vine; because he’s a corrections officer, he could run afoul of a federal law banning campaigns by certain government employees. He also hasn’t filed a committee for Congress because he’s not sure whether he’ll spend or raise $5,000. Mr. Doheny, meanwhile, raised $306,000. In a month.

Kellie Greene, who moved back to the north country last fall to run for the seat after spending eight years in Arizona, didn’t know the UNYTEA event was taking place until earlier in the week, so she couldn’t attend. Event organizers compared her to Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, the bête noire of the district’s conservatives. That didn’t scare off 18 percent of the UNYTEA straw poll voters.

In his effort to bring the district’s conservatives into the fold, it’s been a glass-64-percent-full slog for Mr. Doheny.

But that’s a better percentage than he’s ever had before, and he’s coming close to sealing the deal with the movers and shakers who will help decide what to do with the Republican and Conservative party lines.

He’s done it with a message and a method. He’s a conservative Republican, he says. And he’ll leave no hand unshaken, no back unslapped and no name misremembered in his effort to get past June 26, the date of a possible primary, with as many conservatives as possible behind him.

“We’re quite pleased with the (straw poll) results, and we’ll just keep working hard every day from now until November SIXTH!” He says the last part with nearly musical emphasis.

Or until June 26, a reporter posits.

“We’ll be continuing on beyond June 26,” Mr. Doheny says confidently.

His chances of beating Mr. Owens in November would improve greatly if he could unify the right in a district that had been dominated by the GOP since the Civil War. That domination held fast until an uncivil war split the Conservative Party from the Republican Party in 2009 and again in 2010. Typically, the Republican candidate is the same person as the Conservative candidate, but not in those years.

This time, Mr. Doheny is slowly but surely winning over the support of local Conservative Party leaders in an effort by all parties involved to prevent the divide from happening a third time.

The St. Lawrence County Conservative Party Committee, one of four active committees in the 11-county district, came out early and endorsed Mr. Doheny this month. It was the first Conservative committee endorsement Mr. Doheny has ever received. Chairman Henry R. “Hank” Ford lauded the fiscally conservative bona fides of Mr. Doheny, who has pledged not to raise taxes, wants to cut corporate taxes and eliminate the estate tax, and wants to institute a law requiring the federal government to balance its books every year.

And while no other committee has come out to endorse him officially, it’s within the realm of possibility, which wasn’t the case in 2010.

The Madison County Conservative Party Committee in January forwarded state Chairman Michael R. Long a “very favorable recommendation” of Mr. Doheny, said Chris Kendall, the county’s chairman.

“It seems that he is very well informed on the issues; he understands the seriousness of our debt problem,” said Mr. Kendall, whose committee interviewed Mr. Doheny in January. “We believe he is committed to being a force to move our country toward a balanced budget. So there are a lot of positive aspects to what Matt has to say in his campaign.”

In a 2009 special election, the Conservative Party supported Douglas L. Hoffman, a Lake Placid accountant, because then-Assemblywoman Dierdre K. Scozzafava, the Republican candidate, was deemed too liberal.

He became a tea party hero after knocking Ms. Scozzafava out of the race. Mr. Hoffman ended up losing to Mr. Owens after Ms. Scozzafava endorsed the Democrat.

After that performance — getting that many votes, that much national attention, coming so close to winning a race on their third-party ticket — how could Conservative Party leaders turn their backs on him in 2010? It didn’t help that Mr. Doheny had given a maximum donation allowed by law to Ms. Scozzafava’s campaign.

So in 2010, the Conservative Party gave Mr. Hoffman its line when he tried for a rematch, but he lost the Republican primary by 651 votes to Mr. Doheny. Two Republicans on one ballot. Again. Mr. Owens won. Again.

Mr. Hoffman says he’s still open to getting into the race, but even some of his former supporters don’t want him to.

“Doug Hoffman is a good man,” Robert White, the Franklin County Conservative Party chairman, said in an email. “I backed him very strongly in his last two campaigns, but I think Mr. Doheny is the stronger candidate this year. I think Doug would make a great candidate for the state Assembly this year, and I hope he will consider doing that instead of trying to mount a campaign again for Congress.”

That committee expects to make an endorsement sometime in March.

David J. Kimmel worked for Mr. Hoffman for 18 months, and he’s got a simple answer when asked if his former boss should get in this race.

“No,” he says. “Nope. … I hope he considers me a friend, but he’s through.”

Mr. Kimmel pauses, and adds: “He’s a fine man.”

And yet, despite the high-profile endorsements, hard work, financial edge and name recognition, there are some who still won’t go along with a Doheny candidacy, and may never.

Mr. Doheny’s abortion position is most often blamed for that lingering discontent. He says he believes that abortion should be legal in the first trimester, but doesn’t support partial-birth abortion or federal funding of abortion.

“There’s no way I’d ever vote for him,” says Bettina F. Beckford, a Hermon resident who estimates that at age 84, she put up more than 100 yard signs for Mr. Hoffman in 2010.

“He’s a RINO,” Mrs. Beckford says, using the acronym for “Republican in name only.” “He believes in murdering unborn babies. He’s a RINO. That’s why we wanted Dede out of here.”

Mr. Doheny said that if he were in Congress for the most recent session, he would have had a 100 percent anti-abortion record, based on the bills that came up for approval.

“I’m not going to predict what comes up before Congress,” he said. “But based on what we saw for the last term or two, I’ll have a 100 percent pro-life voting record.”

Ron Deeley, a conservative who maintains a vast email listserv of like-minded north country residents, pointed out that a September 2010 Watertown Daily Times editorial called Mr. Doheny a “moderate.”

“If the Watertown Times says he’s a moderate, what am I supposed to think?” he says. “Based on what the platforms say, (Ms. Greene) is the conservative.”

Ms. Greene sees an opportunity to run to the right of Mr. Doheny, describing herself in a way that’s an epithet outside of a primary in a red district: a “far-right conservative.”

“Sounds to me like the Conservative Party may want to revisit their mission and values statement,” she said in a recent post on her campaign’s Facebook page. “Doheny is not a conservative. He wasn’t in 2009 or 2010 and he isn’t today.”

While Ms. Greene acknowledged in an interview that Conservative Party leaders are coalescing around Mr. Doheny, she still has garnered grass-roots support from members of organizations such as NNY912, a group with tea party ideologies and an educational bent.

“There is a strong grass-roots movement for Kellie Greene,” said Len Schick, the Oswego County Conservative Committee chairman. “That’s what got Doug Hoffman going. So there is some precedent that can say that (she could win). Anything is possible.”

Mr. Schick says that Mr. Doheny has the clear advantage in the race, and that the Oswego County committee could support him, but two factors have helped buoy Ms. Greene’s grass-roots support.

“I think No. 1 is that Matt upset some people over the last election with Hoffman, with the negative advertising at the end of the campaign,” Mr. Schick says. “They would be against Matt regardless. I think the other issue is the pro-choice, pro-life issue.”

But this year, the not-Doheny-or-bust crowd seems to be in the minority. It’s appearing more and more likely that this will be the year that Mr. Doheny finally vanquishes the demons of 2009 and 2010. A one-on-one fight in the north country would improve the conservatives’ hopes of removing Mr. Owens from office.

“We want change in Washington, and we’re not going to get it by fighting amongst ourselves,” Mark L. Barie, the chairman of UNYTEA, said as the tea party event wound down Friday night. “No candidate is perfect. So you take the best possible candidate that has the best possible chance of winning. That’s Bill Buckley’s philosophy. I’m very hopeful for Matt. It’s too early for me or the tea party to endorse him, but I’m very hopeful for Matt Doheny.”

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