By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Yes, socially conservative Republican candidates prevailed last night in the big races—the gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey—but it was the special election for New York's 23rd Congressional District that had become a national symbol for the battle between religious conservatives and the GOP establishment. In recent days, it was the race that the big Christian right groups like the Family Research Council and Susan B. Anthony List and the movement's favored politician, Sarah Palin, had become most outspoken about.
But after forcing the socially liberal Republican out of the race, the right's candidate, Doug Hoffman of the Conservative Party, lost yesterday to Democrat Bill Owens. It's the first time a Democrat has won the district's seat in more than 100 years. After having made the race a national emblem, the right—including the Christian right—have to face the national implications of its loss there. Even in a ruby red district, the aggressively conservative Hoffman brand failed.
In Virginia and New Jersey, by contrast, the winning Republican candidates made a point of downplaying their social conservatism. As Spiritual Politics' Mark Silk notes, the new recipe for GOP success appears to be "a return to the Gingrich days of the 1980s and early 1990s, with Reaganesque candidates like Virginia's Bob McDonnell hiding their social conservatism under a bushel as social conservatives mobilize quietly behind the scenes." McDonnell and New Jersey's next governor, Chris Christie, campaigned as moderates.
In light of Hoffman's loss, the Christian right's biggest victory came in Maine, where voters rejected a newly adopted same-sex marriage law. In Washington State, meanwhile, voters approved a so-called "everything but marriage law" that expands rights for gay couples. The split decision mirrors what national polls tell us about where Americans are on gay couples: yes to civil unions, no to gay marriage.