Another from the Washington Post.
N.Y. special election has broad political significance
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 2009 3:26 PM
Significant battles sometimes take place in obscure places. Until the last month, New York's 23rd district was known mostly for its cold climate, its history of electing Republicans to the House and its relatively moderate politics.
The GOP has held the district for more than a century. As a result of a surprise announcement on Saturday, Republicans are likely to continue to hold it for the time being. But the developments that put Republicans back in a stronger position to win a special House election on Tuesday will reverberate unpredictably far beyond the boundaries of the 23rd district.
By the time this fight is over, several questions will be front and center heading into the 2010 midterm elections. One is who really controls the Republican Party? Another is whether grassroots anger is now the driving force in politics. A third is whether all this is a wise and winning strategy for Republicans or a great gamble by what has been a beleaguered party.
When President Obama nominated former New York representative John McHugh to be his Army secretary, he created a vacancy in McHugh's upstate district that quickly became the scene of a civil war within the Republican Party.
Republicans have held the district, or portions of it, for more than a century. McHugh first won his seat in 1992. He was a moderate Republican, a vanishing species within the party but a politician well suited to the views of his constituents. His district, like many in the Northeast, has been moving toward the Democrats. The Democrats now control 26 of New York's 29 House seats. Last year, Obama carried McHugh's 23rd district over John McCain by five percentage points.
The local Republican leadership tapped state assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava to run in the special election. She seemed to them a good fit for the moderate district. On social issues in particular, however, she was out of step with national Republicans, supporting both abortion rights and gay marriage. Nonetheless, she enjoyed the backing of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican National Committee, House leaders and, among others, former speaker Newt Gingrich.
Conservatives rebelled. To grassroots activists and some prominent GOP officials, Scozzafava's brand of moderate politics was an offense to the party's principles, a bridge too far at a time when Republicans are engaged in a serious debate about how to recover from two devastating election defeats. Quickly they began to coalesce around Doug Hoffman, who was running as the Conservative Party candidate.
Tea Party activists took up the cause for Hoffman. Activists from far away camped out in the district and began organizing for Hoffman. Prominent conservative radio talk show host backed him, as did a host of grassroots-oriented conservative organizations.
Then there was Sarah Palin. In her first significant move since resigning as governor of Alaska, Palin announced her support for Hoffman, deepening the split between the party leaders and the grassroots. Palin's endorsement prompted others to back Hoffman over the GOP nominee. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is eyeing a 2012 presidential race and knows the energy and power of the party's conservative base, also backed Hoffman.
Scozzafava held a narrow lead over Democrat Bill Owens when all this started. Hoffman's growing support gave rise to fears among Republicans that he would so divide the Republican vote that Democrats might steal the seat. Then, as more and more attention focused on the race and more conservatives jumped aboard Hoffman's campaign, Scozzafava rapidly began to fade.
By Saturday morning, the race was between Owens and Hoffman. By Saturday afternoon, Hoffman was rated the favorite. In between, Scozzafava announced she was suspending her campaign, Republican Party leaders quickly endorsed Hoffman and the party committees began to throw their remaining resources behind a candidate they had been trying to undermine for weeks.
"Palin was catalyst -- -her endorsement turned the tide and gave everyone else permission to do the right thing," one conservative Republican strategist said Saturday. "If Hoffman pulls it off, it will be a case study in [political science] graduate seminars for years to come on how the grassroots rebelled against the party bosses and won."
This was a classic case of the grassroots overrunning the leadership of the party and it carries implications for the battles that will play out next year and beyond. As the Hoffman campaign gathered momentum, prominent supporters of Scozzafava decried litmus test politics, arguing that for Republicans to become a national party again they must back candidates with disparate views on issues.
They lost this round, as activists drove home the message that candidates can stray only so far from conservative doctrine. The success of the activists in the upstate New York district is likely to prompt more conservative challenges to candidates deemed not conservative enough.
It's been clear that the forces outside of Washington and out of the control of the party leadership are having a sizeable impact on the Republican Party and on the country's politics. Party leaders like the enthusiasm and the activism that they see behind these groups -- the first real energy within the conservative coalition in at least four years -- and want to do everything to take advantage of it. But as the battle in the 23rd district reminded them, they are being pulled along.
The benefit is that Republicans now have a more energized electorate than the Democrats. As the saying goes, satisfied people don't vote in midterm elections, dissatisfied voters do. But the risk is that a Republican Party that is at record lows in terms of identification will be pulled even farther to the right in ways that will limit its appeal to the center of the electorate.
Gingrich, who joined others to support Hoffman Saturday, said candidates running in 2010 and 2012 will have to take notice of what happened. "I don't think you can afford to be dictated to by the hard right because then you can't get to the center," he said. "But you have to recognize that there is a vast conservative movement in this country, it is very well organized and you have to respect its size and strength and recognize that it's a key engine of your success."
The related factor is the politics of anger that seems to be a force right now. It takes a variety of forms: anger at Wall Street, anger at the banks, anger at Washington for bailing out the big boys, anger at the Obama administration for what is seen as a big government agenda, anger at political leaders of both parties for being in cahoots with the powerful against struggling families.
A veteran Republican strategist and a veteran Democratic strategist independently voiced their belief recently that anger is the most significant force in politics today and a potential threat to incumbents of both parties next year. "I have never seen it like this," the Republican strategist said recently. "It is a breakdown of trust."
The anger that welled up during town hall meetings in the summer was aimed primarily at Obama's health care initiative, but many of those voices also expressed frustration with politicians of both parties.
In New Jersey, dissatisfaction with Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and his Republican challenger, Chris Christie, has given a boost to independent Chris Daggett, who has criticized both major party candidates. Daggett's candidacy is a potentially decisive factor in that race.
What just happened in New York's 23rd district was an expression of anger at the Republican leadership, local and national. In the short term, Scozzafava's decision to suspend her campaign gives a boost to GOP hopes of holding the seat. In the longer term, the outcome of the GOP civil war there suggests that, for now, the grassroots holds the upper hand.