N.Y. 23 Really Strengthened the GOP Right

Anyone who gets this news from the networks, the Washington Post or the New York Times has been told several times that while Republicans may have won some elections this fall in Virginia and New Jersey, Doug Hoffman’s narrow loss to a Democrat in New York’s 23rd Congressional District was a sign that the GOP is “on the verge of a civil war” that could destroy any chance of a Republican comeback next year.  

David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s chief political aide, went so far as to say after the November 3 elections that the contest in the Adirondacks was the only race that really mattered. Axelrod dismissed the sweeps in Virginia and New Jersey as unimportant when compared to what he sees as a sign that internal Republican divisions will allow Democrats to emerge relatively unscathed next November regardless of how upset most Americans might be today with the President’s programs and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Congress.  

That, to put it gently, is wishful thinking. In fact, the topsy-turvy race that took place up in New York this year will make it more rather than less likely that the Republicans will be united next fall.

The conservatives who rallied around New York Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman did so to send a message to establishment Republicans that they cannot be expected to dutifully line up behind any candidate selected without consulting them or taking their wishes into consideration.  

In a number of upcoming races, Washington Republican leaders and their consultants have not been simply recruiting candidates, but trying to pick winners in contested primaries. This has happened in the past. For example, of the ten freshmen Republican senators elected in 1980, half had won nomination against more “moderate” primary opponents supported by the Washington GOP establishment. To say that attempts to dictate to the grass roots had upset grass-roots conservatives is to understate the feelings.  

The problem stems from a sort of pragmatic static political analysis attractive to some Washington-based campaign “professionals.” Their thinking is that if the GOP nominee is more “moderate” or to the left of the Republican base, he or she will be able to attract more independents and Democrats than a more-conservative nominee. This is strategically sound as far as it goes, but ignores other factors and assumes that no matter how out of step a nominee might be with the conservative base of the GOP on core issues, the base will always and everywhere support such a nominee because they either have nowhere else to go or because even if they don’t particularly like the party flag-carrier, he or she will be more acceptable than the Democratic nominee.  

When conservative voters rebel at this sort of thinking, which in its extreme form suggests a strategy completely devoid of values, the pragmatists blame the conservatives as though they have some sort of obligation to follow their partisan leaders. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been an advocate of the view that any Republican is under all circumstances worthy of conservative support and suggests that those who aren’t willing to “go along” with candidates who share virtually none of their values need to “grow up.”

Conservatives upset with this reasoning this year are in revolt against this approach and in New York’s 23rd Congressional District decided to “send a message” to Republican leaders that, while they are willing to be team players, they are not ready or willing to abandon all principle to further the interests of a partisan team.  

In that district’s special election, Republicans chose a big-government establishment candidate, Dede Scozzafava, who supports the Obama administration’s spending policies, has been a consistent advocate of gay marriage, pledged that if elected she would support card-check and the Obama/Pelosi healthcare plan and who had, as a state legislator, consistently supported higher taxes and virtually every pro-labor piece of legislation that came before her. She was a supporter of ACORN and was quickly endorsed both by the SIEU and the Daily Kos. The Weekly Standard described her as very possibly the “most liberal Republican congressional nominee ever.”  

Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), is a solid conservative who has done a fairly good job overall, but dropped the ball on this one. Whether he knew what he was doing or was operating on bad advice from his staff when he decided to go all out for Scozzafava is difficult to determine, but he ended up spending a fortune on her behalf and enraged conservatives by doing so.  

Some have suggested that he was “only doing his job” because she was, after all, the party nominee. That is true as far as it goes, but hardly explains the emotional way he and other members of his team went about pressuring reluctant colleagues into backing her, squandering nearly a million dollars to prop her up or did all in their power to discredit Hoffman while portraying their candidate as a mainstream conservative.  

Appearing before conservatives as the race began to heat up, Sessions angrily defended the NRCC’s role by arguing that she was fairly nominated by New York Republicans as the “best candidate available” in a “fair, open and democratic process” while dismissing Hoffman simply as a “sore loser.” After the election, however, Sessions defended himself and tried to distance himself and the NRCC from the debacle by blaming it on a “closed and flawed” process in New York that cries out for reform.  

A look back at what actually happened even before the call for a special election became official tells a somewhat different story. In New York, when a special election is called the law allows a party’s county leaders to gather and select a candidate without holding a mass meeting, convention or primary. The process is hardly “democratic” and is rather a throwback to the days of the “smoke-filled room.”  

When it became clear that New York Gov. David Patterson would be calling a special election to fill the seat Republican Rep. John McHugh gave up to accept appointment as secretary of the Army, the district’s county GOP chairmen decided to “interview” potential candidates of whom there were eight, including both Hoffman and Scozzafava. Seven of the eight were conservatives and New York Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long informed members of the committee as the “interviews” began that his party would endorse any of the seven, but could not and would not support Scozzafava if they gave her the nomination.  

It should be noted that the role of the New York Conservative Party has been a key to Republican victory in New York for decades. In fact, most New Yorkers can’t remember the time when a Republican won statewide without Conservative support. The role of the party is unique in the U.S. because New York law allows a candidate to accept the nominations of more than one party and have the votes cast on different lines added together. There are many voters in the state who have never been comfortable pulling the Republican lever, but who are willing to pull the lever for the Republican candidate if he or she is also listed on the Conservative line.  

By the same token, there are many New Yorkers who, when the Conservative Party nominates its own candidate, will vote for that candidate rather then the Republican. As a result, Republican candidates try to qualify for Conservative Party support, knowing that in many instances they aren’t likely to win without it. This simple fact made what Long communicated important, because it gave party leaders notice that if they selected Scozzafava they were likely to have a real fight on their hands.  

They went ahead anyway, selecting a woman who had been rated the third most liberal member of the New York State Assembly; not the third most liberal Republican, but the third most liberal overall.

Long contacted the potential candidates who had been rejected and managed to convince Doug Hoffman, an accountant and GOP loyalist, to bolt and accept the Conservative Party line. Hoffman is hardly the sort of wild-eyed right-winger later depicted by the liberal press. He is an accountant who has built a number of successful businesses in the district after having made something of a name for himself as controller of the Lake Placid Olympics.  

Hoffman was appalled by the runaway spending characterizing today’s Washington and decided for the first time in his life to step up to the plate by offering himself as a candidate. He is not a great speaker, but rather comes across as just what he is, a decent and principled man who has had enough.  

With Hoffman prepared to take on the GOP establishment, Long sent word to the Republican hierarchy that there was still time to avoid an ideological civil war in the Adirondacks. At that point the Scozzafava nomination wasn’t official because the governor hadn’t yet issued an official election call and it could therefore be changed. “Dump Scozzafava,” Long said, “and we’ll join you in the campaign to keep the district in Republican hands.”

Demonizing Hoffman

Instead, national and New York Republicans launched a campaign to demonize Hoffman and sell their choice as a “moderate.” It didn’t work. Dozens of House Republicans refused to back their party’s nominee and nationally known conservatives led by former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and the Club for Growth endorsed Hoffman.  

The NRCC and Republican House leaders recruited former Speaker Newt Gingrich to chastise conservatives for jumping ship. Gingrich argued that winning is everything and to win conservatives should rally to Scozzafava’s candidacy regardless of her positions on issues of concern to them. His tone and the vehemence of his attack on fellow conservatives, as well as his assertion that winning isn’t just important but all-important, backfired.  

Before it was over, dozens of leading conservatives and conservative organizations had lined up behind Hoffman. Former Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Rick Santorum, the Susan B. Anthony list, the American Conservative Union PAC and a number of House members, including former NRCC Chairman Tom Cole of Oklahoma, endorsed Hoffman and hundreds of volunteers flooded the district in the final weeks of the campaign.  

Going into the days just before the election, it appeared that Hoffman was pulling ahead and would win. Once it became clear to district voters that the race was between Hoffman and Owens, Scozzafava’s support began to drop precipitously. She couldn’t raise money and independent polls showed her running a distant third and the last poll before the final weekend put Hoffman five points ahead of his Democratic opponent.  

Then things got crazy. First, Republican former New York Gov. George Pataki endorsed Hoffman. This was seen by many Republicans around the state as evidence that the New York GOP establishment was throwing in the towel. The next day Scozzafava suspended her campaign and freed her followers to vote as they saw fit. The NRCC ended its media blitz that had been directed against Owens and Republican operatives working on get-out-the-vote efforts in the district withdrew.  

Within hours, Scozzafava’s husband, an SIEU union official, endorsed Owens, saying that there was only one important issue: card-check. At the same time, the SIEU and other unions that had formally endorsed Scozzafava, who was regarded in Albany as a reliable pro-union vote, shifted gears and began working actively for Democrat Owen. The speed with which the shift was accomplished convinced many that it had been pre-planned.  

Scozzafava Endorsed Owens

Then, the next day, two days before the election, Scozzafava herself endorsed Owens just hours after declaring publicly that she was and would remain a Republican. The story of how this endorsement was engineered is a story in itself, involving the White House, Speaker Pelosi and leading New York Democrats.  

Since then, Scozzafava and her supporters have said she was driven out of the GOP by extremists and, once abandoned by her party, had no choice but to endorse a Democrat. Her credibility on this was put into question shortly after the election, however, when sources in Albany revealed that she had shared her decision to withdraw on the Thursday before the election — a full two days before she actually withdrew, and before either Pataki had endorsed Hoffman or the NRCC had withdrawn it people and money from what was by then seen as a losing effort.

Labor Helped Scozzafava

As a result, organized labor was able to begin moving people into the district for the final push on behalf of Owens before the events that Scozzafava claims precipitated her withdrawal and, in fact, before she informed Republican leaders that she was withdrawing.  

When district Republican leaders initially decided to nominate Scozzafava, Long and others warned that she would not only vote in Washington with Nancy Pelosi’s forces, but that she was also not really not just a moderate or liberal Republican, but was totally in the pocket of organized labor and would eventually switch parties if elected. Her actions during the campaign and in the days since have proven these warnings accurate.  

Since the election, Hoffman has been criticized by some for his “failure” to win. Some blame him for not being as articulate as they might have wished or for not having a firm grasp on the minutiae of all the issues the next representative from the district will have to handle in Washington. But the fact remains that he was the only conservative willing to step up to the plate and devote himself to a campaign in which an actual electoral victory seemed from the beginning like a long shot. He had little time to prepare for the campaign, but campaigned gamely and came across to most who met or heard him as just what he is: a decent man who sought to do the right thing.  

His loss was almost inevitable once Scozzafava withdrew and endorsed Owens, but Hoffman received some 46% of the vote. In the 1970 U.S. Senate race, Jim Buckley, the only statewide candidate ever to win on the Conservative Party line, won only 39% of the vote with his two liberal opponents splitting the rest. Had Scozzafava (who got 5.5% of the vote) remained in the race or refused to endorse Owens, Hoffman would now be a congressman.  

Sending a Message

Still, he and those who backed him accomplished most of what they set out to accomplish. The campaign in the Adirondacks sent a strong message to party leaders both in New York and Washington that they know they can disregard only at their own risk. There will be no more Dede Scozzafavas nominated in New York or anywhere else. In addition, the campaign pumped new blood into Mike Long’s New York Conservative Party, which will keep New York Republicans from veering too far left in coming years and the conservative movement proved that when it unites and focuses on a shared goal it can make a real difference.  

By working together, conservatives almost elected a congressman in New York and are convinced that a similar effort will allow them to help nominate and elect a senator next year in Florida.