NY21: What in the world happened to Bill Owens?

CORRECTION:  Bill Owens did not vote for the Federal stimulus plan backed by Barack Obama in 2008.  He didn’t take office until the next year.  We regret the error.  Owens did later embrace the policy, advocating for stimulus projects in the North Country.

In a blog post yesterday, I copped to the fact that I sort of expected Democrat Bill Owens to lose his race against Republican Matt Doheny.

I called Owens’ campaign “quiet” and “lackluster.”  During the final weeks of the campaign, I was in room after room where the energy and audience support for Doheny seemed bigger and noisier.

When Siena’s second poll of the NY 21 showed that Doheny had closed a big double-digit gap and moved to within a single point of Owens, the three-year incumbent from Plattsburgh, I thought it showed real momentum.

But on election night, Owens was the one who surged past Doheny, picking up big margins in Clinton and St. Lawrence County, which lifted him to victory.

So what happened?  Here are five theories about why Owen prevailed.

1.  Incumbency really matters.  I don’t mean this in a cynical way.  Owens has drawn strong reviews during his first three years for helping constituents with individual problems, while also working hard on big problems, including the aftermath of tropical storm Irene, the Crowne Point Bridge crisis, and the regional economic downturn.  As a consequence, even many elected Republicans have endorsed him or described him as a good partner.  When early polls showed Owens leading by 13%, it was clear that his job performance had built a reservoir of good will.

2.  Owens had the centrist resume.  When Bill Owens first ran for office as a Democrat in 2009, a lot of people thought he was a Republican.  He had a strong record of helping boost economic growth in Clinton County.  After he went to Washington, he was careful to tack hard to the center.  Yes, he voted for Obamacare and later backed the Federal stimulus (which was approved before he took office).  But he also won a strong rating from the NRA and focused a lot of his attention on veterans and farm issues.  This made it harder for Doheny to tag him as a Nancy Pelosi liberal.

3.  Owens is establishment.  Matt Doheny tried to brand himself as the businessman in the race, but Owens has much deeper ties to North Country’s chamber of commerce class.  He’s served for decades on bank boards.  In his own law firm he partnered with legendary North Country state Senator Ron Stafford, a Republican.  And Owens himself has a North Country persona — less brash, less noisy, less young, less fast money — that’s much more in synch with the business community here.

4.  Owens campaign wasn’t that lackluster.  I stick by my argument that Doheny out-hustled Owens.  And the barrage of third-party money from conservatives was extraordinary.  But Owens built a big war chest and spent a ton of dough on campaign ads, including a couple that were highly effective.  He also quietly mobilized union groups to help with his get out the vote effort.  In the final days, he was supported by robo-calls from Bill Clinton and a big influx of spending from Democrats in Washington.

5. Owens faced a flawed candidate in a Democrat-friendly election.  In the past I’ve described Owens as the luckiest politician in North Country history.  This time, he won straight-up, without all the stars aligning in his favor.  But the simple truth is that Republicans are still suffering under a very damaged brand right now and tensions within the conservative movement are making it very tough indeed for even the best GOP candidates to prevail.  For all his good qualities, Doheny wasn’t strong or appealing enough to overcome those hurdles.

The bottom line is that Bill Owens has now emerged as the most influential and important politician in the North Country, and he no longer has an asterisk by his name.

If someone had suggested a half-decade ago that Owens’ political resume would grow to rival that of Stafford, his one-time Plattsburgh law partner, I would have told them that they were crazy.

But as Owens pivots from the campaign to tackle monumental issues including the farm bill and the fiscal cliff that threatens Fort Drum, he will be influencing decisions that will shape our region for decades to come.


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9 Comments on “NY21: What in the world happened to Bill Owens?”

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  1. Incumbency matters. Because in our system, people generally default to the devil they know over the devil they don’t unless the incumbent gives them a compelling reason otherwise. Challengers rarely win elections. Incumbents usually lose them. And Owens didn’t do enough to lose it.

  2. And frankly, I like having a politician who’s not a loudmouth (thank God Owens beat Hoffman in ’09) and is more interested in quietly getting things done. We already have too many grandstanders who aren’t interested in doing the people’s business.

  3. Marquil says:

    Another element that certainly worked to Owens’s advantage was redistricting. He inherited a large chunk of the old 20th CD that elected Chris Gibson in 2010. Gibson served with Owens on both the House Armed Services and Agriculture Committee. In a well-publicized show of bipartisanship last March, during the run-up to the election, both members brought a hearing on the farm bill to the soon-to-be swapped northern reach of Gibson’s district. This cross-party association gave Owens a significant advantage over the Watertown/ABay-based Doheny in introducing himself to a significant population center of the new district.

  4. PNElba says:

    Running as a “businessman” sure doesn’t convince me to vote for a politician. Government isn’t a business and I don’t think business experience helps all that much (see “he-who-must-not-be-named).

  5. PNE: Amen. I mean, Republicans always tell us that government doesn’t create jobs, the private sector creates jobs. So how can electing a businessman to public office help create jobs? To follow their logic, we’d be taking someone allegedly talented away from where the real job creation supposedly happens!

  6. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    My guess is that there was something of the Scott Walker Syndrome happening in the part of the district that Owens was elected to twice. Did people say to themselves, Doheny had his shot twice and lost.

    I don’t think Owens did all that well in the new parts of the district.

  7. Marquil says:

    Khl, you are correct. Owens lost in Warren Washington and Saratoga Counties (won in Essex), but he did marginally better (1-2%) in the new parts of the district than Murphy did against Gibson two years ago. My guess is it translated to about a couple thousand votes (though I’d have to check that).

  8. mervel says:

    Possibly the race and both these guys are just so boring they crushed any sort of analysis either way?

  9. Candid says:

    I really think the incumbency advantage played a very significant role in this race. People were choosing between the devil they knew and and the devil they didn’t. Doheny was perceived as a loaded gun and he provided the voters with enough examples of his volatility (everything from his personal life to his shifting platform) that ultimately many voters decided it was a gamble they weren’t willing to take.

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