Who gets to be in the club? That's a question Republicans and Democrats alike have grappled with in recent weeks. Their answers are sure to shape congressional elections in 2010 and beyond.
The GOP dilemma came in the form of Dede Scozzafava, their erstwhile nominee for last week's open House seat election in upstate New York. Local Republican chairs tapped the moderate-to-liberal assemblywoman for the race, and the national party followed suit. But when a Conservative Party candidate emerged, national right-wingers lined up behind his candidacy. Eleven outside interest groups, including the antitax Club for Growth ($645,000) and the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List ($91,000), poured more than $1 million into the race on Hoffman's behalf. They vowed to send a message to the national party about what kind of Republicans are acceptable. It would be a test of the strength of the nascent "tea party" movement.
And something remarkable happened: Scozzafava's poll numbers cratered. She fell into third place behind Democrat Bill Owens and Conservative Doug Hoffman. When Scozzafava pulled out of the race the weekend before the election, her tormentors were gleeful. "Don't let the door hit you on the way out!" commentator Michelle Malkin crowed.
Right-wing activists started choosing their next targets. The Scozzafava takedown, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey told Politico, was the "tip of the spear." That spear would be aimed at insufficiently orthodox Republicans in House and Senate races around the country. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who holds a roughly 20-point lead in next year's Senate race there, may be conservatives' biggest target. They view him as an Obama-embracer with an amorphous political philosophy, contrasting with his Republican rival for the seat, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, whom Rush Limbaugh has called a "down-the-line Reagan conservative."
But a funny thing happened on the way to the victory tea party in New York's 23rd. Democrat Owens won, taking 49 percent to Hoffman's 45 percent. Six percent voted for Scozzafava, who remained on the ballot. Owens will be the first Democrat to represent the district since the Civil War.
In other words, given the opportunity to vote for a nationally approved conservative, 55 percent of the voters in this historically Republican district pulled a different lever. Of course, right-wing movementarians could only draw one conclusion. "This is a huge win for conservatives," wrote RedState.com's Erick Erickson, arguing that sending a shot across (or through) the national GOP's bow was more important than stopping the Democrat. And Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser added that the race proved that the GOP cannot win without conservatives.
Republicans do need conservatives to win. But conservatives need Republicans too, even moderate or liberal ones, if they want to govern. Part of the right's problem is that it still believes the hoary old crumb of conventional wisdom that says the United States is a conservative country. From that assumption flows the logic that the GOP's path back to majority status lies in ideological purity.
But the United States is too large and diverse for such one-size-fits-all generalizations. Take Scozzafava. A moderate or even liberal GOP-er by national standards, she is a conservative among New York Republicans, a professor at the University of Chicago discovered after analyzing her voting record. The fact is that the only red-blooded conservatives in New York are in talk radio and Fox News Channel studios, not in elective office. It's not a liberal cabal that's rejected national conservatism in the Northeast, it's the voters. The result: a total of two Republican House members in New York and New England.
Which brings us to the Democrats. National Democrats have had their moments with an agitated base, most notably 2006 when erratic Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman lost his primary race in Connecticut, only to win re-election as an independent. He has since campaigned for GOP presidential nominee John McCain and said that he would "probably" support some Republicans in 2010. Lieberman may help filibuster healthcare reform.