Split Will Kill GOP Or Make It Stronger

Upstate NY Congressional race could set tone for Republicans

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Getty Images
    Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, an expected 2012 Republican presidential candidate, endorsed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in New York's 23rd congressional district, rejecting party's official candidate. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

    A whirlwind 24-hour period in New York's 23rd congressional district shows the peril and possibilities for the shaky relationship between the conservative movement and the Republican Party. 

    Saturday morning, a Siena Research poll had Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman leading Democrat Bill Owens 36-35 percent. The official Republican choice, Dede Scozzafava had fallen to third at 20 percent.  By early afternoon, Scozzafava announced that she was suspending her campaign, citing lack of money. Notably, she told her supporters they were free to make their own choice -- but didn't endorse either remaining candidate. 

    There was euphoria among conservatives: Liberal Republican Scozzafava had been driven to the side.  Without the right-of-center vote being split, Republican voters could unify behind the Conservative Party candidate. 

    Not so fast!

    Barely a day later, Scozzafava releases a statement endorsing the Democrat. According to Politico, within moments of her dropping out Saturday, Democrats went on an all out blitz to get her endorsement. Everyone from the White House on down -- including the most powerful Democrat in the New York state legislature, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and the most popular Democrat in the state, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo -- worked on Scozzafava:

    Two senior Democrats with ties to the White House praised Cuomo’s role in the operation, saying they were confident Scozzafava was on board after learning that she told Cuomo: "You're going to be the next governor of New York."

    Also critical was Silver’s assurance, in a phone conversation with Scozzafava, that the state Assembly Democratic caucus would embrace her if she chose to switch parties, now viewed as a real possibility after her endorsement Sunday of Owens.

    What were Republicans doing while all this was going on? Well, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee quickly consolidated behind Hoffman.  That certainly makes a lot of sense (especially considering how tough the NRCC had been in attacking Hoffman when Scozzafava was still in the race). However, one would think that the official party organizations might have worked to cajole Scozzafava into endorsing Hoffman.  When she dropped out, she still had 20 percent of the vote.

    But, the GOP may have made the "right" decision:  A Public Policy Poll released Sunday showed Hoffman surging to a 17-point lead over Owens. Still, the impact of Scozzafava's endorsement wasn't immediately felt. Not until Election Day will anyone know if these last-minute machinations will have any effect on the final vote. 

    One thing is known one day before voters in the 23rd cast their ballots:  The conservative base of the Republican Party has flexed its muscles and sent a loud message. It's already collected Scozzafava's scalp and -- if Hoffman wins on Tuesday -- will have a powerful living symbol of its electoral strength.  

    If Hoffman loses, the base will still be able to crow and force other state parties into being very careful over how they go about nominating candidates. Beyond Scozzafava's liberal view on many issues, conservatives were even more furious over GOP county chairmen appointing her rather than allowing a primary process to take place.

    True, the special circumstances that existed in NY-23 don't exist across the country: New York is a state with several ideological and strategic political parties that have the power to cross-endorse the main parties -- and can draw in frustrated candidates to run on their lines. Furthermore, this was a special election which could attract national attention from both the establishment GOP and various conservative organization.  During a regular election cycle, it's unlikely that the entire conservative movement could focus on multiple conservative third-party challengers and attract enough media and financial resources to knock off an endorsed GOP nominee. 

    But nothing succeeds like success. With one notch in its belt, the conservative base will most likely consider more dynamic ways to show that its issues and concerns won't be ignored. If the price is moderate and liberal Republicans like Scozzafava endorsing  (and defecting to?) Democrats, well, that's worth it.   

    New York writer Robert A. George blogs at Ragged Thots.  Follow him on Twitter.