By JOE LoTEMPLIO and VALERIE BAUMAN
PLATTSBURGH — Plattsburgh attorney William Owens captured the 23rd Congressional District seat, giving Democrats a victory in the district for the first time since 1852.
Owens won largely by exploiting a battle between moderates and conservatives for control of the GOP.
With 88 percent of the precincts reporting early Wednesday, Owens, the former Air Force captain, defeated Lake Placid businessman Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate, 49 percent to 46 percent.
Dierdre Scozzafava, a moderate Republican, withdrew from the race Saturday under pressure from the party's right wing because of her support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage. She still picked up 5 percent of the vote.
Hoffman conceded the race late Tuesday before supporters gathered at the Hotel Saranac in Saranac Lake.
Owens arrived at Clinton County Democratic Party campaign headquarters at the American Legion Post 20 early Wednesday morning to thunderous cheers from about 200 supporters.
He was embraced by Patrick Sullivan, a representative of SEIU 1199, a health-care workers union that gave Owens more than $400,000 for his campaign.
"You did it, Bill," Sullivan boomed. "I am so proud of you."
Owens was joined on stage by his wife, Jane, and other family members.
"Upstate New York hasn't received this much attention since 1980 and the Miracle on Ice," he said, in reference to the U.S. Olympic hockey team defeating the Soviets and winning the gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
Owens thanked his supporters for waging a strong campaign.
"You are the ones who proved that elections aren't decided by pundits or polls. You rejected the false attacks and the partisan divisions and decided that when it comes to confronting the challenges we face, we're all in this together.
"Tonight's victory is your victory and our victory."
Owens said he plans to continue his message of job creation in the North Country when he gets to Congress.
"As I go forward now to Washington, I'm going to work with Republicans, Democrats and independents to do just that."
Hoffman started at a distant third and was viewed as a spoiler at best, cutting away at Scozzafava and opening the door for Owens.
But prominent Republicans, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, endorsed Hoffman instead of the party-picked Scozzafava.
Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long said Republicans should take the blame for the loss.
"If we were together, we would have been victorious. The mistake was clearly made by the Republican Party when they picked their candidate."
Owens's victory may signal renewed strength among Democrats, or at least reassure them of Republicans' perceived weakness.
Republican John McHugh vacated the seat in September to become Army secretary.
Republicans had held the seat since the Civil War.
The outcome leaves Republicans holding only two seats in the state's 29-seat congressional delegation.
"They're in a civil war over the definition of their party," said Paul Blank, a Democratic consultant. "And the extremists have won."
Republicans will be sorting out their identity as the party tries to strike a balance between growing its ranks and preserving the values that set it apart from the Democratic Party.
"I think that the Republican Party is broad enough to handle many different candidates, but the fact is that I'm a common-sense conservative Republican — I am not a radical," Hoffman said Monday.
"The point is that Assemblywoman Scozzafava was not a moderate Republican. She was an ultraliberal Republican."