(CNN) – If Democrat Bill Owens manages to claim victory in next month's special congressional election in upstate New York, he'll have some unlikely benefactors to thank.
In an echo of the Sen. Arlen Specter-Pat Toomey fight that prompted the Pennsylvania senator to abandon the GOP - many of the toughest attacks on the Republican nominee, state assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, are coming from voters who identify themselves as conservatives. The catcalls from the right became a chorus Thursday, with simultaneous noon editorials from major conservative media outlets - including the National Review, Washington Times, and RedState.com - all calling on Scozzafava to withdraw from the race, citing a run-in earlier this week with a conservative journalist.
The GOP candidate, said the Washington Examiner, "should withdraw from the special election campaign for New York's 23rd congressional district. And donors to the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which funded Scozzafava, should demand their money back."
The national party re-affirmed its support for Scozzafava. "The NRCC supports Dede in this race," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay. "We will continue to remind central and northern New Yorkers that a vote for Doug Hoffman or Bill Owens is a vote for Nancy Pelosi and her far left, radical agenda."
Both Owens and Scozzafava - but particularly the Republican candidate - have been hit hard by conservatives backing third-party candidate Doug Hoffman, who has now pulled within single digits of the GOP's pick in the most recent survey of district voters.
The campaign for this House seat is the latest display of disaffection from the conservative base over the national GOP's recent candidate recruitment efforts. Hoffman has nabbed the backing of New York's Conservative Party, which generally supports Republican nominees – a nod that, in a state where candidates can run under multiple party lines, can often provide the edge in narrow races.
(Update after the jump: Sarah Palin weighs in)
Leaders of the Republicans' Senate and House campaign committees have come under attack from conservatives upset over the party's picks, including the early decision to back Florida Gov. Charlie Crist over former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio in next year's Senate race. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, got a firsthand glimpse of the disaffection over the summer, when his appearance at a Tea Party event in his home state drew a solid chorus of boos from the crowd. Scozzafava, who was selected by the state party and did not face primary voters, is the latest target of conservatives upset over what they view as top-down dictates from party leaders.
And this week, those GOP fault lines have been on display as Scozzafava's campaign adopted a defensive posture in confrontations with conservative critics. A faceoff with Weekly Standard journalist John McCormack provoked hours of recriminations in cyberspace - and provided fodder for a new radio ad from the Hoffman team mocking her team's decision to call police over the incident. The Republican nominee held a press conference outside Hoffman's campaign headquarters – only to find herself surrounded by sign-carrying Hoffman volunteers, a visual that echoed the dominant impression trailing the candidate: that she's literally besieged on all sides. And in response to criticism that lack of support for Scozzafava was 'anti-woman,' the Family Research Council Action Political Action Committee released a stinging statement blasting the Republican for her positions on abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
"You can be certain that conservatives will back a woman candidate when that woman reflects the conservative values of her district and supports the very document that is the platform of her own Party," said PAC president Connie Mackey. "From what we have seen, Dede Scozzafava does neither." The FRC Action PAC has backed Hoffman. So has the anti-immigration Minuteman PAC, and former House Majority Leader and FreedomWorks founder Dick Armey.
It hasn't been all bad news for Scozzafava, who's nabbed the backing of some conservative stalwarts - the National Rifle Association has endorsed her. So has Newt Gingrich. The former House Speaker came to her defense Thursday, chiding her critics for failing to see the big picture. "My number one interest in the 2009 elections is to build a Republican majority," he wrote in a blog post. "If your interest is taking power back from the Left, and your interest is winning the necessary elections, then there are times when you have to put together a coalition that has disagreement within it."
But Scozzafava's opponents are reaching deep into their wallets, pouring money into the district as the race enters the home stretch. Conservatives need to help Hoffman beat Scozzafava, Erick Erickson wrote earlier this month in one of his semi-regular fundraising pleas for the third-party candidate on the blog redstate.com. "It is galling to me that John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Jeff Sessions, and the House Republican Leadership would fall in line behind a Democrat just because she has an 'R' next to her name. Better the Democrat who isn't afraid to say it than the one who is. Conservatives, though, should rally behind Doug Hoffman who will caucus with the GOP and is the legitimate principled candidate."
"This is a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party," he added later, in a separate pitch. "It is the House version of the Marco Rubio race. We should put them both over the top. Make it happen."
And the fiscally conservative Club for Growth hit the airwaves with roughly $300,000 of TV and radio ads aimed at conservative-leaning voters on Hoffman's behalf. One TV spot hit both major party candidates, comparing Owens to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Scozzafava to New York's unpopular governor, David Paterson.
TV ads from Hoffman's campaign paint him as the race's true conservative – a message that may resonate in the reliably Republican district. The seat's previous occupant, former GOP Rep. John McHugh - who left office to serve as President Obama's Secretary of the Army – won re-election in 2008 by nearly 2-to-1 over his Democratic challenger.
"There's something going on today. Politicians don't understand it. But Americans are fighting back. That's why conservative Republican Doug Hoffman is running for Congress," says the narrator in a 30-second Hoffman spot. "He'll fight for strict term limits, reject pork barrel spending, oppose and refuse any pay hike for Congress. Army veteran, businessman, NRA member, Hoffman will take our conservative values to Washington."
A Siena survey released earlier this month, before the Club for Growth and Hoffman ads hit the airwaves, found Scozzafava held a 7-point edge over Owens, 35-28 percent. Hoffman registered 16 percent – despite the fact that roughly 7 in 10 of those polled didn't know who he was. Last week, in a new Siena poll, Scozzafava's 7-point advantage over Owens had turned into an apparent 4-point deficit, though one roughly within the poll's 3.9 percent sampling error – she now trailed the Democrat, 33-29. Hoffman had also picked up support - and, at 23 percent, was within single digits of Scozzafava.
Republicans may be hoping the party's longtime dominance in the district to make the difference on Election Day - and there may not be much else they can count on to spark a Scozzafava surge: Siena found that, by a 28-12 margin, those who'd seen the GOP candidate's campaign ads said the spots made them less likely to support her.
Update: Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, endorsed a candidate in the NY-23 race Thursday night - and it wasn't the Republican.
"Political parties must stand for something," she wrote in a post on her Facebook page. "When Republicans were in the wilderness in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan knew that the doctrine of 'blurring the lines' between parties was not an appropriate way to win elections.
"Unfortunately, the Republican Party today has decided to choose a candidate who more than blurs the lines, and there is no real difference between the Democrat and the Republican in this race. ... Republicans and conservatives around the country are sending an important message to the Republican establishment in their outstanding grassroots support for Doug Hoffman: no more politics as usual."
Follow Rebecca Sinderbrand on Twitter: @sinderbrandrcnn