Ousted GOP candidate endorses Dem in messy NY race

Posted on November 2, 2009

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The drama over the special election in NY-23 has taken a variety of surprising turns over the past few weeks. The Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, was selected by a county board of GOP supervisors and got a load of initial cash and support from the national Republican establishment. But a plethora of her policy stands made many in the base question why she was selected in the first place. There are her positions on social questions that rub many the wrong way (including winning an award from Planned Parenthood), but besides that, she also favors card check and the stimulus package.

Many in the national GOP electorate reacted with growing anger after already being served with a moderate Republican candidate in the presidential race who fared rather poorly. Complicating matters was the presence in the race of a Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman. After the national spotlight was shone on Scozzafava, and after Hoffman began to make significant gains in the polls, several national figures endorsed Hoffman, including Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, and George Pataki. Other party leaders, seeming motivated more by party affiliation than policy positions, continued to stick by Scozzafava, like RNC chair Michael Steele and Newt Gingrich.

On Friday, however, beaten back by plummeting poll numbers and an influx of national cash and ground support for Hoffman, Scozzafava dropped out of the race. She shortly endorsed her Democrat opponent, Bill Owens, apparently after urging from numerous members of the Democratic party, including Sen. Charles Schumer and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. It’s hard to see how her endorsement, along with its coordination with national Democrats, blunts any criticism that Scozzafava was basically a Democrat with a different letter after her name; indeed, it underscores the truth of it.

The NRCC and the RNC look like huge dupes for blowing $1 million on a candidate that angered their national base and ended up stabbing them in the back anyway. Now the headline is a predictable, “Is there room for moderates in the GOP?” It was the same blather that was spouted after Arlen Specter defected, but like Scozzfava, his defection solidified criticism that he was basically a Democrat with a different letter after his name. Never mind that many of Scozzafava’s position are more in line with a liberal Democrat than a moderate Republican, but it returns to an issue that many are trying to foist on Republicans in the hope of reducing their appeal and their influence.

I would respond that a political party must have a set of core principles that it must expect its members to adhere to the majority of the time, and the local GOP ran a candidate that in many ways is indistinguishable from the Democrat. On one level it may be advantageous to have more numbers in your caucus, but if the liberal GOP rep goes to Congress and votes with the Democrats on the big issues like health care reform, cap and trade, and card check, then nothing of substance is gained at all. Instead, you’ve jeopardized your party’s goals at the expense of the base’s trust, all for the sake of having a few more people with the same letter after their name on your team.

There are some places where a more moderate candidate is absolutely necessary to win. NY-23, which has voted reliably Republican for quite some time, wasn’t one of those places. If this had remained a two person race, many probably would have grumbled but been OK with a Scozzafava win. But with the presence of Hoffman, it was too much for conservatives to see the national party prop up a liberal candidate at the expense of an actual conservative in the race.

It may be that this will be the right’s Ned Lamont moment, although that’s a somewhat flawed analogy as Lamont was the liberal faithful’s answer to a sitting incumbent that didn’t fit their tastes. In any case, I have no idea how this race will turn out. PPP says Hoffman has a double digit lead, but a lot of other polling outfits have the race much closer, and while the late momentum seems to be in Hoffman’s favor, I’m not going to say anything for sure.

Now the shouts are coming that this race shows the GOP is becoming too ideologically driven and the base too needful of “litmus tests” for its candidates. This criticism rings hollow as most of the Democratic agenda in Congress is coming straight out the liberal playbook with threats against moderate members to go along if they know what’s good for them. No, the question that NY-23 poses isn’t whether the GOP can be more inclusive in its principles, it’s whether the party will have any principles at all.

Whether Hoffman wins or loses, the message has been sent to the GOP leadership that an “R” after the name isn’t enough any more. Whether that’s “inclusive” enough for some is immaterial because a party cannot merely become the milquetoast version of its opponent to survive. Instead of statistically based pandering, it needs bold contrasts and recognizable differences, and more importantly, it needs workable ideas and solutions. NY-23 showcases the vast divide between the expectations of the Republican base and the cynical vision of the RNC leadership.

If it is to have success in 2010 and 2012, the GOP can’t simply bank on Democratic failure. It must provide positive solutions of its own. But beyond that, Bush’s second term and McCain’s candidacy utterly disillusioned a vast swath of the conservative base, and if the GOP is to flourish, it cannot continue to be not just apathetic but antagonistic toward its core voters. Regardless of whether Hoffman wins or loses, NY-23 may represent the beginning of a shift away from political expediency and back toward principled leadership.

Update: Cross-posted at The Moderate Voice.

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