NY21: What in the world happened to Matt Doheny?

Matt Doheny left the North Country’s political stage last week after falling at least 4,000 votes shy of toppling Democratic incumbent Bill Owens in the 21st district congressional race.

After three attempts at winning the region’s House seat, and spending at least $750,000 of his own money in this year’s contest, Doheny says he’s retiring from politics.

As the dust settles, I find myself circling back to the question of what happened to this once-promising, ambitious politician — a man his national party labeled a Young Gun.

What is it that prevented Doheny — a self-described moderate-conservative — from winning back a seat that once seemed like a safe bet for Republicans?

Here are six thoughts about what might have clipped his wings.

1.  Sheer bad luck.  If Bill Owens drew winning hands in 2009 and 2010, in the form of a nasty, divisive Republican-Conservative cat-fight, Doheny got the shaft.  His best efforts at unifying the center-right were stymied by bitterness and ideological disputes beyond his control.  By the time he was able to harness his side into anything like a unified force, Owens was already established as a three-year incumbent.  Doheny had also earned himself a fair amount of distrust from some conservative activists who felt like he got in the way of Doug Hoffman’s tea party destiny.

2.  An untimely resume.  Doheny wanted voters to see him as a straight-up businessman, but he made a ton of money on Wall Street doing the kinds of Bain Capital-style things that average citizens don’t understand and are increasingly leery of.  That CV might have looked A-OK before Washington bailed out Wall Street.  But now?  Doheny argued that skeptical questions about his business history were a kind of class warfare.  And he worked to brand Owens as a lawyer who didn’t understand entrepreneurship.  But in many ways the Democrat’s resume and history sounded more Main Street than Doheny’s.

3.  A cultural disconnect.  Matt Doheny was hard-charging, aggressive, forward-leaning, brash.  Those aren’t bad things.  But it didn’t always scan well. My sense is that it sometimes came across as glib.  It contrasted sharply with Owens quieter, more mature posture.  Doheny at times seemed more eager to talk than listen.  He sometimes answered hard, complex questions with blunt, one-word answers.  I’m not sure how that played with the moderate Republicans, women, and independents who decide North Country races.

4.  Personal baggage.  Doheny made a big deal of his decision to marry just before the election heated up, but I suspect that voters were still a bit leery of his personal history.  In 2004, Doheny was tagged twice for boating while intoxicated on the St. Lawrence River and Coast Guard officials described him as “uncooperative, very angry and combative.”  This year, Doheny was spotted in public with a woman other than his fiance, prompting the Glens Falls Post Star to question his “late-night dalliance in Washington D.C. that was videotaped and played up in the New York City tabloids.”

5.  That killer ad.  I’ve described Bill Owens’ campaign as “quiet” and “lackluster” and I stick by that description for the most part.  But there were a couple of TV spots produced by the Democrat’s team that I think landed serious blows on Doheny, in large part because they tapped into the narratives in points 2, 3 and 4 above.  The most effective was a spot called “Four Islands.”  I’m not saying the spot was entirely accurate or fair.  But did it do Doheny damage?  I’m guessing Yes.  Check it out.

6.  A shifting political tide.  Doheny himself has pointed out that the district’s voters tilted to Obama this year, making it tough for a Republican challenger to buck the regional trend.  I think it’s a fair argument.  But I also think it’s reasonable to point out that Doheny didn’t do much to distance himself from elements of his party that don’t play well here.  He was fiercely anti-union in a part of the world where unions are accepted even by many GOP leaders.  He made a big deal out of attacking President Obama and healthcare reform, and opposing tax hikes for the wealthy, even though those issues have complicated textures in the North Country.  Doheny, like a lot of Republicans around the country, bet the farm that average voters here were ready for a much more conservative line in Washington.  They were wrong.

I acknowledge cheerfully that this is all Monday morning quarterbacking.  There’s no prescience here.  If you had forced me to bet my nickel on one of these candidates last Tuesday morning, I guess I would have bet on Doheny

Given his defeat, the field for Republicans is wide open for 2014.  There are signs that Doug Hoffman, the Conservative candidate, may be interested in throwing his hat back in the ring.

Tomorrow in the In Box, we’ll look at how Owens won this race, and we’ll look at what it means that a Democrat has captured the North Country in a straight up contest with a sane, well-funded, centrist Republican.

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47 Comments on “NY21: What in the world happened to Matt Doheny?”

  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Will you stop with the shifting political tide already? The North Country has been voting in Dems at the top of the ticket for some time now. Yes there was a Tea Party wave in 2010, but that was the aberration in the pattern.

    You missed the point that Dems in the district, especially the new part of the district were highly motivated to be in a Blue district. And by Dems I mean Democrats and all the Registered Republicans who no longer trust their own party and have been vote splitting or voting row A all the way.

    Still, Doheny fought hard and put a real scare into the Left.

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  2. Marquil says:

    Good points, though maybe not quite accurate ascribing the Conservative/Republican split to “bad luck.” The right side of the political spectrum has been engaged in civil war for the past decade—a struggle kept in check (somewhat) during the Bush years. After the financial collapse and election defeat of 2008 the lid finally blew off.

    The November ’09 special election for the seat of a moderate GOP Rep (who defected to the Obama administration) in a district with a strong allegiance to the Conservative line was the perfect place and time for the fight to spill into the street. It was repeated the following year, and echoed in districts across the map with the advent of the Tea Party. This year’s primaries and Presidential election marked a new high-point in the conflict, with no resolution yet in sight.

    In that light, Doheny looks more like an inevitable casualty of a party at war with itself. Perhaps his real bad luck was that the Green Party nominated a crack-pot. Bill Owens “strategically” ignored environmental issues (in many cases finding common cause with anti-environment politicians on the right). He may well have been vulnerable to attacks from a more credible third party candidate.

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  3. TomL says:

    7. People are concerned about economic development and jobs in the North Country. Owens had a record of positive economic development accomplishments in the region, at least in the Plattsburgh area. Doheny may have economic savvy too, but although he is originally from the North Country, his business experience is in Manhattan.

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  4. JDM says:

    “Democrat has captured the North Country in a straight up contest with a sane, well-funded, centrist Republican.”

    That was my prediction. Centrists don’t win elections. (as Mitt found out)

    Get Doug Hoffman in there and you will see.

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  5. newt says:

    JDM, I couldn’t agree more. Bring back Hoffman! I’d send him some money myself for the primary, if I he needed it.

    Meanwhile, back in the reality-based world, (not to get ahead of Brian’s post for tomorrow), Owens also had a strong record on constituent services. One letter in the P-R told about how he intervened on behalf of a vet with some ALS or some other God-awful disease to get help from the VA in days, after the guy had been neglected for months. This kind of thing does resonate with voters. Especially against a guy known for his success in Bain-like takeovers, the Washington party circuit, and mixing boozing with boating

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  6. I think Republicans across the country, even in fairly conservative areas like ours, were hurt by guilt by association with extremists like Akin and Mourdock and Santorum. They became the perceived face of the party. And that guilt by association hurt relative moderates like Doheny and Romney. Both also had to pander to the Tea Party fringe in the primary process. People weren’t necessarily afraid of Doheny and Romney. They were afraid of who they might surround themselves with.

    I have a friend who’s actually closer to Democrats on economic issues but is a hard core social conservative and that’s how he votes: based almost entirely on abortion. He couldn’t stand moderate Republican Pataki. You know, a guy who actually got elected three times statewide.

    For years, he insisted that the NYS GOP could only reinvigorate itself by hitching their wagon to social conservatives. After utter landslide defeats by social conservatives like Faso, Paladino and Long, I think he still clings to this belief. State Senate Republicans have resisted this trend only because they haven’t been taken over by extremists.

    NYSers may be more conservative economically than they used to be but they are not theocrats. This is why Gov. Cuomo is doing so well in those famous polls Brian M likes to discuss so much.

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  7. Also bear in mind, that the district was expanded south into Glens Falls (and Saratoga possibly?), both of which are far more Democratic than the surrounding area.

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  8. Peter Hahn says:

    Doheney had the same problem as Romney. He had to start out far to the right for the nomination, and then try to get back to the center. Its hard to do and Im not sure anyone knew where he was.

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  9. RD says:

    Doug Hoffman is a joke of a candidate. He is not willing to work hard and can’t speak for himself. If not for national backing no one would know who he is.

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  10. If Doug Hoffman’s the best Republicans in this area can do, then that’s illustration enough of why they keep losing in what’s still a tempramentally conservative region.

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  11. Candid says:

    This election was all about character, something Matt Doheny has trouble finding. Matt Doheny made a colossal mistake with that ridiculously huge political wedding (where the political operatives attending outnumbered family and friends by about 20 to 1) when he clearly wasn’t committed to marriage whatsoever (as evidenced by the fact that he managed to cheat on his fiancé during the short six months they were engaged!). It seemed quite clear the wedding was just a giant campaign event. He stupidly tried to eliminate the frat boy image by getting a wife and it totally backfired. Compounding the problem, the campaign continually put Matt’s wife in the forefront of the campaign, which was another colossal mistake. First, it reminded people of the questionable sincerity of the wedding, but second, his wife fell short of being the warm, sweet, stylish, strong, funny and/or engaging future first lady that so many candidates rely on in their campaigns. She came across as a socially awkward New York City transplant who seemed either disingenuous or disinterested in the election. Quite simply the marriage and “family man” image backfired on the campaign. The DC thing would not have even made the news if Matt was just a single guy out on the town. It was such a distraction.

    Second, as much as he tries to separate himself from Wall Street, that Wall Street aggressiveness seems engrained in his demeanor. His bulldog approach with his campaign staff leaked out to the public and inevitably caused voters to question his bedside manner and how that would translate in congress. You nailed it in your article when you commented about his blunt, one-word answers and his inability or disinterest in genuinely listening to others. Matt is without question a man who thinks he is always right and that is a hard trait to have if you are supposed to be representing an entire district. Humility, sensitivity and an ability to compromise are essential for a Congressman and Matt Doheny is light on those traits.

    As for the district turning purple. That may be the case but I have read a number of times that many registered republicans didn’t vote in the election because they were dissatisfied with the congressional option and knew their vote for Romney would be pointless in the New York State electoral college. I am curious to see if more republicans come out to vote again in 2014 or 2016 if they approve of their congressional candidate. The blue hue we saw in the district in 2012 might simply be circumstantial.

    In the end, this was a battle between moral character (Owens) and drive, effort and commitment (Doheny). Moral character won.

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  12. There’s also the simpler possibility that there simply wasn’t enough anger at Owens for people to be compelled to throw an incumbent with a perceived good record of constituent service out of office. Generally, challengers don’t win elections. Incumbents lose them. And Owens didn’t.

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  13. JDM says:

    In the reality-based world, we know one thing for certain – Doheny lost.

    I don’t see any reason to listen to anyone who thought Doheny was a better candidate than Hoffman.

    They were obviously wrong, so why listen to them when they say Hoffman can’t win?

    In the reality world, they already proved their ability to weigh in on such things.

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  14. Peter Hahn says:

    Seems to me Hoffman has already run a couple of times, and so we have some reality-based info on how he did/would do. I too would love to see him run as many times in the future as his heart desires. Newt – where do we send the checks?

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  15. JDM: Hoffman already ran against Owens and he didn’t win either.

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  16. dbw says:

    Candid is right about character issues. Anyone could make a mistake once, but a second BWI within two weeks showed a lack of judgement and character by Matt Doheny. Owens has done a great job with constituent services and his staff is good at getting back to people.

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  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Brian MOFYC, the new part of the district includes Glens Falls which is heavily Democratic, but I don’t believe the City of Saratoga Springs was included. And it looks like Warren, Washington and Saratoga Counties are more conservative than most of the northern counties in the district but not quite as conservative as Hamilton County.

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  18. PNElba says:

    As Republican party hero Bobby Jindel has said: we need to stop being the stupid party.

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  19. Glens Falls isn’t heavily Democratic. It’s just split fairly evenly, unlike most municipalities in this area which are overwhelmingly Republican. Washington County is entirely rural but not that rigidly ideological. Gillibrand won Warren and Washington Cos. in both her House runs.

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  20. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    You’re right. I’ve been here so long that being evenly split seems heavily Democratic.

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  21. scratchy says:

    Brian Mann,

    “we’ll look at how Owens won this race, and we’ll look at what it means that a Democrat has captured the North Country in a straight up contest with a sane, well-funded, centrist Republican.”

    Why do you insist on calling Doheny a centrist? Name one issue on which he disagrees with conservative Republicans. He’s not a Todd Akin clone, but that doesn’t mean he’s a centrist.

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  22. tootightmike says:

    I think voter were offended by the kind of outside money the Republican party dumped into this race, and rightly so.The idea of buying an election doesn’t sit well with liberals OR conservatives.
    The fact that Doheny had no positions, no history, and apparently no ideas didn’t help either.

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  23. Hoffman still got 9000 votes even when he was pushed to drop out for the so called good of the party I would not vote for doheny then or this time either because we all know once a republican is Inge will be in for ever just like mchugh . Doheny was not the right choice I wrote in hoffman

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  24. nelson says:

    The synopsis of all the issues were hit well and explained most everything. Matt and Fred Exley were both well know ABay people. Fred seemed to connect in his own way. People liked to be around him, he knew what was going on all the time, even when he was not in the Bay. Matt did not have that charisma. The locals and even non locals did not take to Matts plan for the future.
    Matt buys the most desirable water property around and builds a nice residence. The locals dream about doing that and when a noisy guy shows up and does it, they did not take well to it. If Fred Exley had done it, every day would have been New Years Eve.
    Nobody really knew Matt, rumors circulated about his personal, professional life but nobody really knew.

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  25. Mike Flynn says:

    Bill Owens character and Leadership ability was Key:

    At the beginning of the campaign I stated here that its focus would ultimately be decided by ‘Character and Leadership’ and what candidate had the ability to understand the plight of the Middle and Working Classes. Mr. Doheny was not representative of sound Character or demonstrated ‘Leadership’ ability in the political arena. The attempt to buffer his Wall Street background in many ways exasperated the disconnect felt by many voters that were seeking a candidate who understood their ‘Pocket’ book issues. Mr. Dohney could never lay claim to that understanding and I called him on it for three years. I was certainly one of the ‘Things’ that happened to Matt Doheny. As a Rockefeller Republican I found his alliance with Mark Barrie and the Tea Party extremists something worth fighting against and did so very effectively. I proud of the Owens victory, it required the effort of a great many good people, and the district will benefit greatly from it in coming years.

    Mike Flynn ‘Middle Class Mike’

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  26. Mark says:

    As of today, 11/13/2012 several campaign signs of Mr. Doheny’s were still scattered throughout the Plattsburgh are. He really should get these removed. They are supposed to be removed within three days after the election according to Town of Plattsburgh zoning!

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  27. Whiplash says:

    On top of the reasons listed, I do not understand why Matt continually disregarded Brian Amaral, the political columnist for one of the most relevant newspapers in the district.

    I agree that rushing to get married was foolish, especially since his wife did not help his campaign at all, and arguably actually damaged it. Some have noted that Mrs. Doheny behaved like she wanted Matt to lose and I second that. Something was off there. How Matt and his campaign staff did not pick up on that is inexplicable.

    And the extraordinary turnover in the Doheny staff was noticeable. And the people he did have didn’t seem to have a good grasp of what mattered to people in the north country. All those Washington hotshots he paraded up here did him no favors.

    I could go on. There were a lot of problems with this campaign which is surprising considering the numbers of advisers employed and the dollars invested.

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  28. JDM says:

    Brian MOFYC: “JDM: Hoffman already ran against Owens and he didn’t win either.”

    Yeah, if you count the special election where he ran on the conservative line in a three-way race and very nearly won.

    Hoffman also got nearly 7% as a write-in in the regular election.

    In this election, it was Owens one-on-one with Doheny.

    In a one-on-one match up with Hoffman (or any bonafide conservative), Owens loses.

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  29. Walker says:

    JDM, you confidently assured us that Romney would win too.

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  30. Matt says:

    Hoffman was too divisive for me, which would allow him to win a primary but not the general election. I think Doheny’s problems were similar to Romney’s. I think both tried to be centrist and further right at the same time, which combined with their wall street experience, made them seem untrustworthy even though I think both were good men.

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  31. JDM says:

    Walker: “JDM, you confidently assured us that Romney would win too.”

    Point taken.

    I think Wall Street and I were both shocked.

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  32. hermit thrush says:

    how on earth was wall street shocked? all the betting markets had obama pegged as the solid favorite.

    anyone who regularly reads the comments knows that jdm is less concerned with accuracy and more concerned with conservative cheerleading.

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  33. “In a one-on-one match up with Hoffman…”

    He already had one, since Scozzafava withdrew. And he lost.

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  34. I’m impressed that Owens was able to survive the endorsement of Hassig.

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  35. Peter Hahn says:

    Wall street was shocked when it turned its attention to the “fiscal cliff”

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  36. T. Hallsworth says:

    Here’s a simple theory of why he did not get elected:

    He grew up in Alexandria Bay where most people work as hard as possible in order to survive through a long, cold, tourist-free winter. He left his hometown as soon as he could. He left the entire North Country area. Perhaps his core values are not the same as his constituents’. It doesn’t take a lot of deliberation to realize that. While the voting public may not always be well-informed, they may understand that Mr. Doheny does not represent the typical residents of this area. In an area that is so devoid of jobs and commercial manufacturing, this candidate made his millions by shutting down American businesses. He visits the area for vacations, not to assist or aid any individual or group in the area. His interest in the area is self-interest, pure and simple. Analyzing why he lost is a waste of effort. Anyone who has lived in the North Country could tell you why he was not elected. In a nutshell, he came back to the area purely to advance his political career. We may be simple people, but we are not feeble-minded people.

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  37. Marlo says:

    I don’t understand the logic where in a district Hoffman has lost twice, Obama has won twice, and Owens has won three times, running a more conservative Republican candidate is supposed to be their path to victory.

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  38. tootightmike says:

    I’m not even sure he was trying to advance his own political career. To me it seems like the national Republican needed a name to fill a spot, and they chose one of their own tribe. This election wasn’t about Owens, it was about taking a seat, and they failed…and failed, and failed.

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  39. JDM says:

    hermit thrush: “how on earth was wall street shocked?”

    I hope you are asking rhetorically.

    The S&P was at 1430 on Nov. 5th. It’s now 1360 and in free-fall.

    Did something other than Obama’s re-election occur in the past 10 days?

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  40. Peter Hahn says:

    JDM – you should read the financial analysts.

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  41. JDM says:

    Peter Hahn: Ah, yes. The “fiscal cliff”.

    Wall Street factored in keeping tax rates the same.

    If Obama raised taxes to 100% on the 1-percent, and took all of their money. All of it. He could run the government for 6 weeks.

    It’s clear to most of us, and certainly to Wall Street, he’s coming after the 99%.

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  42. JDM says:

    …and when he does, the economy will tank, which is what Wall Street is now factoring in.

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  43. Walker says:

    Why should Obama bother coming after the 99%? Your guy ran two wars and a huge tax cut on the nation’s credit card. Why should Obama be worried about running up a bit more debt in digging us out of the hole that left us in? It’s Republicans who are screaming “The Debt! The Debt!” Let ‘em scream.

    The time to pay down the debt is when the economy is booming. Remember Clinton?

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  44. SirLeland says:

    JDM:

    “The S&P was at 1430 on Nov. 5th. It’s now 1360 and in free-fall.

    Did something other than Obama’s re-election occur in the past 10 days?”

    Just a little financial history food for thought, but the Dow was at 7,949 the day Obama took office. Now it’s over 12,500.

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  45. Can am ryder says:

    For me it was the way Matt Doheny treated the arresting officers with his boating while intoxicated incidents.I also didn’t like the video of him grabbing the campaign worker by the butt,when he was supposedly engaged to be married.You just can’t act like you are above it all,and think people are going to support you.

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  46. JDM says:

    SirLeland: “Now it’s over 12,500.”

    You can thank Uncle Ben for that.

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  47. JDM says:

    You can take 7,949 pieces of pie and serve 12,500 people.

    You haven’t created more pie, though.

    That’s the Uncle Ben way.

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