The Republican Civil War in the NY-23 House Special Election

Republicans lean a little heavier in upstate New York.

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Overall, as of this morning, $2.92 million had been spent in the race by outside political groups, with nearly $1.3 million aimed at helping Owens, $900,000 aimed at benefiting Scozzafava, and a bit more than $731,000 aiding Hoffman.

The big-money crossfire has Scozzafava stumbling. A Siena poll released last week showed Owens leading, with Hoffman gaining substantial ground on the second-place Scozzafava. "I would not be shocked if [Hoffman] stayed in third," says Siena's Greenberg. "I would not be shocked if he moved up to second. Nor would I be shocked if he moved into the lead come Election Day. That's how wide open this race is." (Scozzafava's campaign hit a point of surreal meltdown last week when she sicced the police on an aggressive Weekly Standard reporter.)

Political parties certainly need philosophical debates. But they must also know when to end them and to prioritize the good over the perfect. The upstate New York race is the starkest example of an enduring conservative inability to accept those realities. RedState's Erickson wrote earlier this month: "That the GOP would support a candidate who is more aligned with the Democrats on core issues than the GOP signals the GOP is in this to win at any cost, damn the principles. It is exactly that attitude that caused voters to send the GOP packing."

Perhaps. But the disappearance of Republicans from New England, for example, cannot be attributed to insufficiently conservative candidates. Indeed, as I noted on my blog yesterday, Hoffman's vocal proponents include Marilyn Musgrave, a three term GOP House member from Colorado who badly lost reelection not because she was insufficiently conservative, but because she was too far to the right—hardly the best standard-bearer for the get-conservative-or-lose-message. The country is too large for a one-size-fits-all ideological approach. As Newt Gingrich told National Review Online after endorsing Scozzafava: "If you seek to be a perfect minority, you'll remain a minority." That's a lesson Democrats have learned. Their candidate in the 23rd, Owens, a registered independent, opposes gay marriage and a "public option" in healthcare.

The GOP will most likely make gains in the 2010 elections. And the tea party movement gives it new energy. But unfocused energy is wasted energy. The larger issue for Republicans and conservatives is whether the movement's base is willing to maximize those gains by expanding the party's tent. Early signs point to no.

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