Saturday, October 31, 2009

Scozzafava pulls out of NY-23 House race, GOP's extremist right scores another major victory

On this All Hallows' Eve 2009, Dede Scozzafava, the (official) Republican candidate in the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District, has suspended her campaign just days before the vote, giving up in the face of simple inevitability and essentially handing her official GOP nod to far-right Republican and Conservative Party insurgent Doug Hoffman.

Of course, the writing was on the wall. Conservatives have been conducting a nasty smear campaign to bring Scozzafava down while pumping up Hoffman as their chosen one, as their cause célèbre. Scozzafava had the party endorsement, but conservative Republicans across the land had declared their support for Hoffman, and the polls showed Hoffman well ahead of Scozzafava and just about even with Democrat Bill Owens. In pulling out, Scozzafava basically acknowledged that she understood what was happening, that she was going to lose, that Republican support was divided, that the only way for the Republicans to win was to let Hoffman pick up the mantle.

And Republicans, with Scozzafava kicked to the curb, have been quick to embrace Hoffman -- those, that is, who weren't already enthusiastically on board, including those at the top of the party apparatus. Here's what RNC Chair Michael Steele said almost immediately after Scozzafava's announcement -- yes, of course it was coordinated:

Effective immediately, the R.N.C. will endorse and support the Conservative candidate in the race, Doug Hoffman. Doug's campaign will receive the financial backing of the R.N.C. and get-out-the-vote efforts to defeat Bill Owens on Tuesday.

And the floodgates opened wider. "National Republican Party officials, who had also endorsed Scozzafava, are now lining up behind Hoffman," reports CNN. "This new show of GOP unity will make it more difficult for Owens to win the election on Tuesday." Of course, that's what this was all about. Scozzafava may or may not have seen the writing on the wall, but she was no doubt informed of it, and she was likely shown the door, or perhaps even pushed out, told that the party wanted her to fall on her sword, or else.

Even Newt Gingrich, who had shown a rare modicum of sanity by endorsing Scozzafava and rightly accusing Hoffman's right-wing backers of conducting a "purge" of the party, has flipped. He's now in Hoffman's corner.

So what now? Is a Hoffman win now pretty much inevitable? Here's Marc Ambinder:

A series of polls showed Scozzafava in third place, well behind Democrat Bill Owens and, suddenly, Conservative Doug Hoffman, who had stolen about half of Scozzafava's base. Where do the rest of her votes go? CW says that most go to Hoffman, but I'm with Jonathan Martin: I think half go to Democrat Bill Owens or they stay home. GOP registration exceeds Democratic registration by nearly 50,000. This is a Republican district that is likely to remain Republican, -- only significantly more conservative than it's been.

So, yes. It's now Hoffman's race to lose. And, in this generally Republican -- if also generally moderate (hence Scozzafava's appeal to locals) -- district (it went for Obama, but it has gone Republican in House races for generations), Owens just won't pick up enough moderate Republican support to counter the expected boost for Hoffman.

And what does Hoffman's seemingly successful insurgency mean, or, rather, how is it likely to be interpreted? Ambinder again:

Republicans will derive two lessons from the results of this race. One is that the activist base of the party is becoming increasingly powerful in the one area that had eluded them: candidate selection. Other conservative Republicans may now feel more comfortable if they decide to challenge incumbents in primaries. Democrats, believing that Republicans will conservatize-themselves to death demographically, will take this as a positive trend for the long-term. The second lesson is that populist, regular guy candidates win in supposedly "moderate" districts.

The race had become a proxy for debates about the future of the party. Since the situation in NY 23 is so unusual, it may be folly to squeeze out more meaning than's already present.

That's fair, sure, but I think this is far more significant long-term for the GOP than Ambinder suggests, and I think Andrew Sullivan is right: 

No one knows what might happen now. For the insurgents, it means a scalp they will surely use to purge the GOP of any further dissidence. But the insurgents were also backed by the establishment, including Tim Pawlenty, who's supposed to be the reasonable center.

Hoffman's insurgency was driven by the usual suspects on the Republican right, where the likes of Michelle Malkin, overcome with ideological madness, think even GOP moderates are "radical leftists," but, Gingrich notwithstanding, many in the Republican establishment had thrown their weight behind Hoffman. He wasn't just the preferred candidate, the preferred Republican, of the fringe but of parts of the mainstream as well.

Let me clarify that. What was once the fringe is increasingly the mainstream, and the right's victory here -- even before the election, the victory in pushing Hoffman over Scozzafava -- is indicative of the larger shift among Republicans as a whole to the (far) right. Moderates and others who dissent from rightist orthodoxy are either leaving or being purged, and what remains is a narrow ideological sliver in which a Doug Hoffman, or a Michelle Malkin, is actually the new center, a center well to the right both of what the Republican Party used to be and of where the overwhelming majority of the American people are. Even in New York it is not acceptable, it would seem, to deviate from the new party line. Scozzafava got the message. I suspect that all Republicans across the country are getting it, too.

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