Remember the obituaries for the Republicans? Barack Obama's decisive victory in November, coupled with surprising Democratic gains in the Senate and House, led some to wonder whether the GOP was issuing its death rattle. A year later, Republicans have lurched back to life, galvanized by the fight over healthcare reform. But don't confuse Democratic stumbles with Republican gains. The Grand Old Party remains unready for prime time.
To understand why, look to a sprawling, rural swath of upstate New York encompassing small towns, big mountains (the Adirondacks), and a long stretch of the Canadian border. It is the 23rd Congressional District, which has been represented by Republicans since the Civil War. Most recently, the seat was held by John McHugh until President Obama nominated him over the summer to be secretary of the Army. A special election to fill the seat will be held next Tuesday, November 3.
George W. Bush narrowly carried the district in 2004, but Obama won it last year. "This is a lean-Republican district," says Steve Greenberg, a pollster with the Siena Research Institute, which specializes in Empire State politics. "I would even say in an odd-year election—which obviously this is—it is lean-a-little-heavier Republican." It is the kind of district the GOP must hold if it hopes to retake a House majority: competitive but friendly territory.
But national conservatives seem intent on handing the seat to the Democrats. Better to lose in purity, some argue, than to win pragmatically.
Over the summer, the heads of the 11 GOP county party committees in the district—the people, in other words, who best know the area—interviewed a handful of candidates before tapping Dede Scozzafava, a six-term state assemblywoman, to run for the seat. Conservatives had a few small problems with Scozzafava. She's pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, supports "card check" legislation, and, unlike every Republican member of the House, favored the stimulus bill. Did I say small problems?
"If Dede Scozzafava is the best the New York Republicans can come up with, let's just hand the district over to the Democrats," Erick Erickson, managing editor of the influential conservative blog RedState.com, wrote in July.
Conservatives have lined up behind Doug Hoffman, a businessman and political neophyte who, spurned by the GOP, is running as the nominee for the Conservative Party, one of the state's important independent parties. His candidacy has garnered high-profile endorsements: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; former House Majority Leader Dick Armey; Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (who like Palin is viewed as a contender in 2012). Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson has cut a TV commercial for Hoffman (with the odd exhortation, "when your grandchildren ask you why you didn't do something, be able to tell them that you voted for Doug Hoffman"). The Hoffman-Scozzafava showdown, one conservative congressman told the Hill, "could set off a civil war inside the Republican Party."
Could? "Way to go, Beltway GOP establishment," conservative columnist Michelle Malkin blogged, berating the party for fundraising from grass-roots conservatives while supporting a liberal. "Watch your campaign coffers dry up," she added.
The race has become a magnet for outside spending, according to Federal Election Commission records. The Club for Growth has already spent more than $638,000 for Hoffman, mostly for TV ads. (Executive Director David Keating insists that the group is not trying to play spoiler; he says he expects "the two liberals to split the liberal vote," clearing the way for a Hoffman win.) Other groups like the Susan B. Anthony List (more than $52,000), the Campaign for Working Families ($25,000), the National Republican Trust (weighing in with a $10,000 media buy just this week) and the Eagle Forum (almost $5,000) are also playing in the district.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has plunked down more than $889,000 for Scozzafava, mostly for media buys. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent more than $773,000 on behalf of its candidate, Bill Owens, while the Service Employees International Union has kicked in more than $334,000 and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees has spent almost $200,000 for him.
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.