WASHINGTON — Douglas L. Hoffman, the surging Conservative candidate aiming to replace Rep. John M. McHugh in Congress, has said he is the only contestant to carry on the former congressman's conservative legacy.
But to organized labor — one of Mr. McHugh's greatest allies throughout his political career — Mr. Hoffman is running away from the man whose coattails he wants to ride.
Unlike Mr. McHugh, who cosponsored the "card-check" system known as the Employee Free Choice Act and defied the Bush administration on a pay-for-performance system at the Defense Department, Mr. Hoffman has aligned himself with some of organized labor's strongest critics and embraced one group's denunciation of his Republican opponent, Dierdre K. Scozzafava, as a "big-labor backing, tax and spend radical."
If Mr. Hoffman wins on Tuesday, he will have turned on its head a common wisdom about north country politics: that labor union support is valuable, perhaps even critical, to victory. He also will test the theory that money from labor unions — which may have kept Mr. McHugh in Congress since 1993 — is critical to staying in office. Organized labor was Mr. McHugh's biggest source of campaign money.
In his campaign, Mr. Hoffman has gambled that broad unrest with special interest politics, including labors' influence, will trump some voters' loyalty or sympathy to local workers and the unions that represent them, a message consistent with the conservative groups backing his campaign.
"Tragically, this has nothing to do with the needs of the people of the 23rd Congressional District," said Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, which has endorsed the Republican, Dierdre K. Scozzafava. "We're in that whole list of groups that they despise."
For years, unions have been linked to some of the north country's biggest employers. The American Federation of Government Employees has more than 1,000 members working at Fort Drum and had such a good relationship with Mr. McHugh that his two-time Democratic opponent, Dr. Robert Johnson, encountered open hostility when seeking an endorsement in 2006.
Hundreds of other union members work at plants including Alcoa in Massena and Alcan in Oswego, as well as at hospitals, schools and SUNY campuses in Potsdam, Plattsburgh and Oswego. Labor union officials Friday dismissed the idea that unions have lost influence in the region.
"I think the opposite is true," said Dennis M. Hughes, president of the New York AFL-CIO. That both major parties are seeking union endorsements suggests as much, he said.
The Democrat in the race, William L. Owens, and Ms. Scozzafava, have fought for the unions' endorsements, more or less splitting them while the possibility grows that Mr. Hoffman — who shuns any connection — will be the next congressman. If elected, Mr. Hoffman "has to deal with that support that both candidates have," Mr. Hughes said.
Unions endorsing Mr. Owens include Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union and the Communication Workers of America. Ms. Scozzafava has the backing of the Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence Central Trades and Labor Council, where her husband is president; as well as the teachers' union and Local 910 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, among others.
The possibility of Mr. Hoffman's victory may be unspeakable in certain union circles.
A spokeswoman for the SEIU's Local 1199, Leah Gonzales, bristled at the notion that Mr. Hoffman's poll numbers, putting him neck and neck with Mr. Owens, suggest he might win on Tuesday.
"That's presumptuous," Ms. Gonzales said, adding the union is confident Mr. Owens will win.
And while Mr. Hoffman's backers often mention his opponents' labor ties, Mr. Iannuzzi said the race is really more about national conservatives trying to purge moderates out of the party, not specifically labor issues.
Both Mr. Owens and Ms. Scozzafava support the Employee Free Choice Act, which allows workers to join a union by a majority card-check sign-up or by secret ballot — although it does not abolish secret ballots as some opponents charge. It also gives workers greater protection against intimidation by employers, letting employees seek court injunctions against companies that threaten or intimidate workers for trying to join a union.
Mr. Hoffman has said the measure is poorly-conceived and would "destroy the entrepreneurial spirit of this nation" by taking away employers' rights to control the workplace.
Mr. McHugh allied himself with many other union priorities in the north country. He was one of few Republicans to fight the Pentagon on the National Security Personnel System, a pay-for-performance plan that he said eroded collective bargaining rights. That law was repealed by Congress this summer.
He also complained about private competitions for jobs performed by Defense Department civilian employees, opposed free trade acts that Mr. Hoffman's main backer, the Club for Growth, calls one of its top priorities; supported increases in the minimum wage; fought a Bush administration effort to make nurses and some other types of workers ineligible for overtime pay; opposed vouchers for students to attend private schools; and famously enraged the Wall Street Journal editorial page by opposing the Bush administration's effort to require expanded financial disclosures by unions — an effort he called "some kind of harassment" of organized labor.
He called the Bush administration's policies a "wholesale political assault" on labor unions.
He was not always behind unions.
Earlier this year, he voted against bills expanding workers' ability to sue employers for large damage awards in discrimination cases. In 2002, he earned a dismal rating from the AFL-CIO — but then was the only New York Republican in Congress to gain its endorsement in 2008.
But Mr. McHugh never encountered the public lashing Ms. Scozzafava has received in this year's campaign for her support of unions.
In another race, Mr. Hoffman might be criticizing Mr. McHugh's labor stances, as they are not far from Ms. Scozzafava's. But in a campaign appearance available on YouTube, he cited Mr. McHugh's overwhelming re-elections and said, "It's pretty obvious that the people of this district feel very strongly about the conservative American values that made this country strong."
Indeed, on some issues, such as tax cuts, gun rights and enhanced interrogation of terrorism suspects, Mr. McHugh was solidly with the conservatives in his party.
That did not stop labor unions from praising him as one of their best allies in the New York Republican Party, along with former Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Buffalo and, in the current Congress, Rep. Peter King, R-Long Island, who endorsed Ms. Scozzafava.
"We'd like relationships with both parties," Mr. Hughes said.