Republicans are once again facing the prospect of a bitter New York special election that could end up costing them a House seat.
On Monday, the New York Republican Party announced state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin as its nominee to seek the seat of former GOP Rep. Chris Lee. Soon after, at least two Republicans who were passed over announced they are exploring campaigns on third-party ballot lines — a prospect that could split the Republican vote and hand the seat to Democrats.
David Bellavia, an Iraq war veteran who was interviewed by western New York Republican leaders over the weekend, reached out to Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long late Monday to inquire about instead seeking his party’s nomination for the special election.
Bill Hagan, a Bellavia spokesman, said there was a “strong possibility” the Republican would wage a third-party campaign and that he would make a decision within a short period of time.
“I would definitely not rule out a very interesting race. I think it’s going to be interesting,” Hagan said. “It will be a full field.”
“David is the better candidate,” Hagan said. “If you don’t like the decision of seven guys, sometimes you have to take it to the people.”
Bellavia has already booked dates to appear on the programs of conservative talk show hosts Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, according to an adviser. He also won the backing of the Iraq Veterans for Congress PAC, an upstate New York group supporting conservative veteran candidates that had already backed Bellavia in his quest for the GOP nomination.
“Iraq Veterans for Congress PAC (IVC) is enthusiastically supporting [Staff Sgt.] Bellavia as a third-party candidate,” the group’s founder, Kieran Michael Lalor, told POLITICO in a statement. “IVC was started for the explicit purpose of helping conservative veteran candidates beat career politicians and self-funding millionaires in primary and general elections.”
Jack Davis, a wealthy industrialist who ran for the seat in 2004 and 2006, said after being turned down for the Republican nomination that he would launch a campaign for the Democratic nomination. If that fails, he said he would explore other ballot lines.
“There other party lines out there,” Davis said.
Davis said he warned local Republican Party leaders that he would explore a third-party bid if he didn’t get the nod.
The tensions surrounding Corwin’s selection come more than a year after conservative activists thwarted GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava’s bid to fill a vacant upstate New York House seat by throwing their support to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava eventually withdrew from the race and endorsed now-Democratic Rep. Bill Owens.
In the days leading up to Corwin’s selection, Republican leaders in New York and Washington launched a pre-emptive push to avoid a similar split. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) and New York Republican Party Chairman Ed Cox personally phoned Long.
But Rus Thompson, who served as a top aide to former New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino and currently heads TEA New York, ripped the county chairmen for what he called a rushed decision that ignored the input of grass-roots conservative activists. The organization released a statement over the weekend warning Republicans to slow the process or risk the emergence of a third-party candidate.
Thompson said he was not ready to endorse any potential third-party candidate, but that he believed one would step forward.
“I was giving them an opportunity to stop this from happening,” said Thompson. “It’s things like this that infuriate the tea party.”
Hagan said conservative consternation began swirling after a “Capital Tonight” report detailing a 2008 position questionnaire Corwin filled out specifying that she supported first-trimester abortions.
“She’s definitely not the conservative she’s portrayed as,” he said. “She’s at best a moderate candidate.”
Corwin’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In a Monday evening statement, the state assemblywoman trumpeted her conservative credentials.
“As the second most conservative member of the New York State Assembly in rankings by the New York State Conservative Party and the No. 1 legislator in scoring by Unshackle Upstate, a New York reform organization, I know we need to slash federal spending, balance the budget, end the bailouts, take leftover money from the Obama stimulus package to pay down the deficit and support repealing Obamacare,” Corwin’s statement said.
On Tuesday afternoon, Corwin’s campaign touted in a news release the endorsements of Paladino, a tea party favorite during his 2010 campaign, and Lenny Roberto, a local conservative activist and tea party leader.
Though Bellavia is jockeying for the Conservative Party’s support, it’s not clear whether the feeling is mutual.
Long said Corwin had established a conservative record during her tenure in the state Legislature, but would not commit definitively to backing her. He also noted that Corwin ran on the Conservative Party ballot line during her 2008 Assembly campaign.
“This is not a Dede Scozzafava event. Jane is a conservative,” Long said. “She has a fairly conservative record in the Assembly, she has been endorsed by us before.”
Long called Bellavia a “strong” and “a credible candidate,” but admitted that “he doesn’t have any institutional support.”
Long said the Conservative Party wouldn’t make an endorsement in the race until Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo sets an official date for the special election.
The Club for Growth, the Washington-based anti-tax organization that pumped more than $1 million into Hoffman’s 2009 special election campaign, is also remaining noncommittal.
David Keating, executive director for the Club for Growth, said the group had not yet taken a position on the race, but that it planned to look into Corwin’s record and expected to meet with her in the near future.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to a New York special election primary.