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Voter turnout in NY21 GOP primary pegged at 20 percent; negative advertising expected to lower number

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WATERTOWN — Voter turnout this year is expected to be higher than the last congressional primary election, though it is projected to involve only a small percentage of registered voters in the Republican Party.

And it likely will not exceed the heights of the 2010 Republican primary, in which Matthew A. Doheny faced off against Douglas L. Hoffman.

This year, Mr. Doheny is running against Elise M. Stefanik, a former White House policy adviser from Willsboro, on June 24.

In 2010, before redistricting, 31,971 voters, or 20 percent of registered Republicans, came out for the election that pitted Mr. Doheny against Mr. Hoffman — a candidate whose name appeared on the ballot on the Conservative Party line in the general election, garnering him 6 percent of the vote despite a suspended campaign. The district was New York’s 23rd at the time and Mr. Hoffman had substantial tea party support heading into the primary.

But in 2012, only 13,178 voters, or 7.5 percent of the 21st District’s 174,028 registered Republicans, voted in the contest between Mr. Doheny and Kellie A. Greene.

“If I were forced to make a prediction, it’s going to be closer to that 20 percent,” said Raymond E. Petersen, a political science professor at Jefferson Community College and director of the college’s Center for Community Studies.

But the negative ads that have begun running on broadcast and cable television may bring down that number slightly.

“It really depends on how turned off people get,” Mr. Petersen said. “If this continues at this pace, it will certainly depress turnout. We’ll know in a couple of weeks.”

American Crossroads, a GOP super PAC, has begun running an advertisement in the district’s major media markets attacking Mr. Doheny, an investment fund manager from Watertown, for his record as a candidate and incidents in his personal life, including two citations for boating while intoxicated, two lawsuits involving late rental payments at two separate New York City apartments and violation of state labor laws.

Mr. Doheny’s campaign has taken exception to the ad’s characterization of Mr. Doheny and called upon Ms. Stefanik to ask American Crossroads to take down the ad.

Legally, candidates are not allowed to coordinate with political action committees, and Ms. Stefanik’s campaign has redirected Mr. Doheny’s complaints to American Crossroads while stressing Ms. Stefanik’s efforts to run an “issues-focused, positive, grassroots campaign from day one,” according to a statement from Charlotte Guyette, a spokeswoman for Ms. Stefanik’s campaign.

Ideally, that should create a good situation for Ms. Stefanik, according to Shana Gadarian, a professor of political communication at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

“It works with her image because she can still maintain she’s running a positive campaign,” Ms. Gadarian said.

Typically, negative political advertisements are employed when one candidate has a significant advantage over another one, according to Ms. Gadarian.

Given the fact that Mr. Doheny has run for the seat held by U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, twice before and explored running during a special election in 2009, he would have a name recognition advantage over Ms. Stefanik, Ms. Gadarian said.

Rep. Owens announced in January that he would not be seeking re-election. Mr. Doheny entered the race a month later. Ms. Stefanik entered the race in August and was endorsed by 11 of the 12 Republican County Committees in the district. Jefferson County did not endorse a candidate.

But the negative advertising does raise questions about the positioning of the two candidates.

“Typically it’s the campaign that’s behind that goes negative,” Mr. Petersen said.

While Mr. Doheny’s campaign released polling results showing him leading Democratic congressional candidate Aaron G. Woolf, a documentary filmmaker with a home in Elizabethtown, by 43 to 21 percent in the general election, the campaign did not comment on how Mr. Doheny polled against Ms. Stefanik.

No polling testing the two primary candidates against each other has been made public.

Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute, said that the group was not planning to conduct any polling ahead of the primary election but most likely would get involved before the general election.

“Not until the fall,” Mr. Levy said. “It’s certainly one of the ones on the list.”

The American Crossroads ad also complicates Ms. Stefanik’s attempts to resist the “Washington Insider” label that Mr. Doheny’s campaign has repeatedly applied to her, according to Mr. Petersen.

Karl Rove, one of the co-founders of American Crossroads, worked in the George W. Bush White House until 2007. Ms. Stefanik worked there from 2006 to 2009.

Mr. Petersen said he was caught by surprise when he learned of the ad.

“My first thought was Karl Rove? Super PAC? Why would he be doing that? It’s kind of a mystery,” Mr. Petersen said.

Given its recent history with tea party candidates and outside spending, the district has become a testing ground for the Republican Party’s ability to influence the course of races, according to Mr. Petersen.

“This is one more example of how important this district has become over the last five years. It’s become a bellwether,” he said.

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