Image: Bill Owens
Mike Groll  /  AP
New York's 23rd Congressional District Democratic candidate Bill Owens celebrates his victory at Democratic headquarters in Plattsburgh early Wednesday.
updated 11/4/2009 6:06:34 PM ET 2009-11-04T23:06:34

A Democrat running in a historically Republican stronghold won a closely watched special congressional election in northern New York state, capitalizing on a split that emerged between moderates and conservatives for control of the Republican Party.

With 92 percent of the precincts reporting early Wednesday, lawyer and retired Air Force Capt. Bill Owens defeated businessman Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate, 49 percent to 45 percent, after a boost from unified labor efforts in the last days of the campaign and the withdrawal of the Republican candidate over the weekend.

"This has been an extraordinary journey," said Owens, who thanked his family, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

"The process of bringing people together to get results is something I've been doing for a long time, and that's what I'm going to continue to do when I get to Washington," he added.

Owens also thanked one-time opponent Dierdre Scozzafava, a moderate Republican who exited the race Saturday under pressure from the party's right wing because of her support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage and momentum behind Hoffman.

Scozzafava, an assemblywoman in the state legislature, remained on the ballot and picked up 6 percent of the vote herself in Tuesday's election.

Video: Is election a referendum on Obama?

National attention
The race has been getting national attention, with some calling it a referendum on President Barack Obama and others saying it could help Republicans focus their message to attract more people to the party.

Owens will be up for election for a full term next year.

Owens defeated Hoffman despite a 45,000-voter registration edge for Republicans and big-name endorsements for Hoffman from former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson and others. Hoffman had rallied an unexpected level of support in the final days of the campaign, ultimately forcing Scozzafava to quit when he surged past her in the polls.

"This is only one fight in the battle, people," Hoffman said before a gathering of supporters in Saranac Lake, New York, after conceding the race. "Let's keep the fight going. Let's make sure our voices are heard."

The race took several sharp curves leading up to Election Day. It started with Scozzafava in the lead while Hoffman was considered a spoiler at best. That gradually turned around, with polls showing Hoffman moving in to the lead.

Despite the fervor that surrounded Hoffman in the final week of the campaign, Owens managed to appeal to the voters with his talk of job creation and the need of more federal support for farmers and the huge Army base at Fort Drum in the district.

New York state now has only two Republican congressmen in its 29-seat delegation.

The seat became vacant when Obama appointed the incumbent Republican congressman, John McHugh, as secretary of the Army.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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