ALBANY - Democrat Bill Owens Tuesday won New York's 23rd Congressional District, parts of which have been in Republican hands since the Civil War.
Conservative Doug Hoffman conceded shortly after midnight. With 88 percent of precincts reporting, Owens led Hoffman by nearly 4,300 votes.
Almost 6,000 absentee ballots must be counted in the race that captured the national spotlight due to Republican infighting.
The five-week campaign was dominated by a struggle between moderates and conservatives over the GOP's direction. Earlier, millions of dollars in TV ads by conservative activists from outside the region portrayed Republican Dierdre Scozzafava as deserting party values with her support of abortion rights, gay marriage and labor unions.
National players such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich weighed in. Hoffman, 59, an accountant from Lake Placid, became a darling of right-wing media personalities.
Down in the polls, Scozzafava, an Assembly member, bowed out last weekend and endorsed Owens, 60, a lawyer from Plattsburgh. Her name stayed on the ballot and she received 5 percent.
"Regardless of the final tally, the conservatives have won a big victory. . . . They will be power brokers in the Republican Party," said Harvey Schantz, a political scientist at SUNY Plattsburgh. "The real losers are the local county [Republican] chairmen who chose Scozzafava and then couldn't sustain her against rebellious conservatives."
The special election was precipitated by President Barack Obama's appointment of Rep. John McHugh (R-Pierrepont Manor) to be Army secretary. The 11-county district is home to the Fort Drum Army base.
In the campaign's final hours, Hoffman and Owens sought to win over Scozzafava's supporters. Owens seized on a crude remark made by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh about Scozzafava Monday. Referring to her endorsement of Owens, Limbaugh claimed her actions would make moderates extinct within Republican ranks.
Calling the comments "despicable," Owens urged Scozzafava loyalists to vote for him. Hoffman didn't immediately disavow Limbaugh.
"Dede Scozzafava is well liked up here and people are mad about how she's been treated," said Calvin F. Exoo, a government professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton. "But this is coming so late. I doubt it will have much impact."