The defeat of Conservative-party candidate Douglas Hoffman in the special election for New York’s 23rd congressional district was the only bright spot for the Democrats on a night when the governor’s races in both New Jersey and Virginia (states that Barack Obama won last year) were swept by the Republicans. So we can expect the Dems to tout their capture of a seat that had been in the hands of the Republicans for over a century as a rejoinder to those who will say this election is a harbinger of a GOP revival in 2010.
The main talking Democratic point about this race, both before and after the voting, was that the collapse of the campaign of the liberal Republican who had been tapped by the state party to try and hold the seat was due to the intolerance of a radical-Right fringe bent on purging the party of any but the most rabid conservatives. In this way Dede Scozzafava, the Republican candidate who dropped out of the race over the weekend and then endorsed Democrat Bill Owens, was elevated from an inept candidate whose positions were largely indistinguishable from that of the Democrats and who was heading for inevitable defeat, to a martyr for the lost cause of liberal Republicanism. The narrative portrays the Republican grassroots, aided and abetted by national conservative personalities such as Sarah Palin and Dick Armey, as bullies who can’t abide the presence of a pro-choice woman in their ranks and would rather lose an election with a conservative than win with a “moderate.”
The loss of this seat ought to cast a shadow on what was otherwise a big night for Republicans. But the villains here aren’t the tea-party rabble-rousers who sunk Scozzafava, but a local and state Republican leadership that imposed an incompetent candidate on a Republican electorate eager for leaders who could offer an alternative to the Democrats, not someone who would be a halfhearted supporter of Obama’s agenda. The victory of Chris Christie in New Jersey illustrates that there is room in the GOP for Blue State candidates who wouldn’t pass the muster of the conservative rank and file in more conservative states. But the decision to foist Scozzafava on Upstate New York Republicans was a cynical ploy that was always destined to fail even if a credible Conservative-party alternative hadn’t emerged. It is one thing to seek to open up parties to candidates who are not ideological purists. It is quite another to nominate a person whose positions put her on the side of the Democrats on virtually every major issue that Republicans care about. Scozzafava’s candidacy may have seemed like a good idea to GOP big shots, but since she refused to take up any issues that might have rallied the Republican faithful to her side and lacked the ability to appeal to the dissatisfied independent voters that deserted the Democrats elsewhere this fall, what possible chance did she ever have of winning?
The lesson here is not the danger that the right poses to the future of the Republicans but rather that a party leadership that is insensible to the interests of its voters is doomed to defeat. Had the Republicans chosen a candidate who could have counted on the support of the party’s base to start with, the seat could have been held despite the changing demographics in the district. It was Scozzafava’s dismal campaign that lost the seat, not the fact that it was impossible to convince most Republicans that they had no reason to support her.