Republicans hope to launch their return to national power today by obliterating their own candidate in a New York congressional race.
That, in a nutshell, is how strange and intolerant American politics has become.
Today’s off-year elections include just a few races of national significance. The governor's race in Virginia is an early indication of whether President Obama and fellow Democrats can maintain support in a Republican-leaning state that Obama carried last year. The New Jersey governor's race turns more on local issues but is also important to both parties, especially since a win for challenger Chris Christie would give Republicans a rare victory in the Northeast Corridor.
But today’s most interesting race is in the 23rd Congressional District in far upstate New York. On Saturday, Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava announced that she was ending her campaign, effectively dropping out of the race to replace John M. McHugh, who stepped down after Obama named him secretary of the Army.
In the weeks leading up to Scozzafava’s decision, her support plummeted as many Republican voters decided to support Conservative Party candidate Douglas L. Hoffman. When the longtime state assemblywoman dropped out, she was expecting only about 20 percent of the vote. According to polls, her Democratic rival, Bill Owens, was drawing about 35 percent of the vote, as was Hoffman.
Scozzafava should have coasted to victory after gaining the Republican nomination. The district has been in GOP hands since the 19th century. McHugh, himself a relative moderate by current Republican standards, had held the seat since 1992. Democrats did not even bother to put up a candidate against him in 2002 and offered only token opposition afterwards.
But the assemblywoman was targeted by her own party’s conservative wing. Conservatives control a ballot line in New York through the Conservative Party, which usually cross-endorses Republican congressional candidates. Not this time. The Conservatives tapped Hoffman, a CPA from Lake Placid who lives outside the 23rd District and, according to the district’s largest newspaper, seems to have limited familiarity with its issues. Conservatives were put off by Scozzafava’s moderate leanings, particularly her support for gay rights and abortion rights. Many also worried that she might to be too liberal on fiscal issues.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a potential presidential candidate in 2012, endorsed Hoffman early on and lauded Scozzafava’s decision to step aside, saying, “I’m glad Republicans are uniting behind a candidate who understands the federal government needs to quit spending so much.” Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin likewise endorsed Hoffman, as did a slew of other conservatives in politics and media. Hoffman’s campaign was well-funded even as Scozzafava’s financing, initially padded by $900,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee, dried up.
With Scozzafava out of the race, the NRCC extended a warm welcome to Hoffman, saying Republicans “look forward to welcoming Doug Hoffman into the House Republican Conference.”
They may not get the chance. The mere fact that a 23rd District congressional race is in doubt shows how far Republican fortunes have fallen outside the party’s socially conservative Southern base. The 23rd stretches along the Canadian border from Lake Ontario to Lake Champlain, taking in dairy farms, mountain woodlots and military bases. It has more in common with northern New England than with New York City and the other metropolitan areas along the Atlantic coast. Culturally and geographically, it is a long way from Manhattan.
But it is a place where a Republican like Scozzafava can get elected, and conservatives who feel entitled to the party’s votes on national issues are not willing to tolerate that.
Among the last Northeastern holdouts of old-fashioned moderate Republicanism are Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine. These long-serving senators are just too popular in their home state for the right wing to tackle. But the 23rd District race makes it clear that their kind is not welcome in the party. If Snowe and Collins were just starting their careers, they would most likely get the same treatment Scozzafava received.
As the Republican Party drifts further into extremism, moderates are being steered toward the Democrats, who themselves are having trouble working with centrists who, for example, support the military’s request for more troops in Afghanistan. Voters who once would have been squarely within the Republican camp, those who believe in civil rights, limited government, lower taxes and self-reliance, are now being pushed out of mainstream American politics altogether. As I wrote in a post last June, in the long run, the Republican Party’s identity crisis is bad for everyone, since it leaves no real check on Democrats.
House Minority Leader John Boehner tried to dispel the idea that Scozzafava’s retreat is a sign of hostility toward moderates within the Republican Party. “We accept moderates in our party and we want moderates in our party,” he said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
But actions speak louder than words. Conservatives sought to send a message with their assault on Scozzafava, and the GOP heard it loud and clear. "It sends a message to moderate Republicans that there's no room at the inn," as White House senior adviser David Axelrod put it.
Republicans may talk the talk, but, in the end, their “big tent” is shrinking. A lot of prospective Republican voters outside the South are being left out. This is one race worth tuning in for when the poll results come in tonight.