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Fri., Jul. 31
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To regain the 21st, Republicans have to step back, take a deep breath and stay together


The past week’s news has been dominated by the decision of Rep. William Owens, D-Plattsburgh, to step down at the end of his term in December. That blockbuster announcement has thrown both parties into turmoil.

As one would expect, the effect on the Democratic Party was immediate. Despite the strong registration advantage of the Republicans, Mr. Owens has won three elections in the north country on the Democratic Party line, and the influential Cook Report had the district staying in the Democratic column after the coming election. With Mr. Owens’s announcement, it was changed to a toss-up — too close to call.

You would immediately think that the departure of Mr. Owens would have sent Republicans into a collective happy dance at the prospect of regaining a seat the party had held, until 2009, since Rutherford B. Hayes was still in high school.

Instead, it has unleashed a dung-storm of disconnected activity that can’t help but to recall the 2009 special election that first put Mr. Owens in Congress; in that race, internal infighting and a battle between the moderate and ultraconservative wings of the party led to a split vote and a big win for Mr. Owens.

Now, unless cooler heads prevail, that schism could once again rend the Republican Party. This time, however, the rift is shaping up as a geographical rather than an ideological one. This time, there is some evidence the split will be between the east and the west sides of the sprawling district.

Before Mr. Owens’s decision was public, two Republicans on this side of the district, Michael Ring of Adams Center and Joseph Gilbert of DeKalb Junction, were facing Elise Stefanik of Willsboro, at the far eastern verge of the 21st. It appeared that Stefanik’s superior political organization and notable fundraising efforts gave her a big leg up on the two candidates closer to the Times coverage area.

With the Owens announcement, things changed. The most notable alteration of the political landscape came with the sudden potential return to the political arena of Matthew Doheny, a Watertown Republican who lost two very close races to Mr. Owens in 2010 and 2012. Now, Republicans are facing two formidable candidacies and likely will have to chose between Ms. Stefanik and Mr. Doheny, should he elect to run.

Of the two, Mr. Doheny would be the clear favorite of this side of the district. He almost beat Mr. Owens twice, he still has the framework of a political organization that he can resurrect quickly, he has enough cash of his own to jump-start his campaign, and he now probably has been back around the north country long enough to almost be a good ol’ boy. If today was four years ago, he’d be a shoo-in.

Sadly for Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence county Republicans, it no longer is 2010. To comply with new Census numbers, the old 23rd Congressional District is no more; now, the north country is served by the 21st Congressional District, and the changes in the district have brought a new political reality to bear — as Mr. Doheny can testify from his 2012 race.

Now, the district includes a lot more of the Northway corridor and a lot less of the I-81 corridor. Gone are the friendly votes of Oswego and Madison counties, where the issues of the western north country prevail. Added are the Warren, Washington, Saratoga votes, where issues of the Capitol District reign. The middle is the sprawling Adirondack wilderness, unbroken by population centers or adequate highways. The new 21st district is a very different animal than the old 23rd.

While Republicans in a lot of the Northway corridor counties have already lined up for Elise Stefanik, those in I-81 counties are waiting to hear whether favorite-son Matt Doheny will saddle up yet again. If he does, the hunt is on. And the battle could get ugly.

There is no reason for Mr. Doheny to run again if he doesn’t fully intend to win. There is little doubt that if he does run, a primary looms. A Republican primary would be an expensive and bloody affair; the winner could come out stronger, but would certainly come out poorer. And if enough blood was drawn, negatives brought out in the primary would be there for the Democratic candidate to exploit.

Jefferson County Republican Chairman Donald Coon had the best advice for Republicans: slow down. Let things settle. See what the Democrats will do. Then, presumably, move to find a consensus candidate.

Otherwise, the Republicans could once again hand the election to the Democrats by wasting all their capital fighting among themselves. If that happens again, I’m betting Mr. Owens will know that he had the last laugh.

Perry White is the city editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Contact him at

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