A Cautionary Note for Republicans In the NY 23 Race

Last night, New Jersey voted out John Corzine, by 49 percent to 45 percent. In the Commonwealth of Virginia the Republicans captured the statehouse by 17 points. In New York's state's Westchester County, voters emphatically rejected incumbent Democratic County Executive, Andy Spano. Spano lost by 16 points to Republican challenger Rob Astorino.

But, in the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District, Democrat Bill Owens captured the seat vacated by Republican John McHugh. Despite a endorsements by The Wall Street Journal, Sarah Palin, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Fred Thompson and George Pataki, the Conservative Party’s candidate Doug Hoffman could not hold on to a traditional Republican seat. Owens won 49.3 percent of the vote, Hoffman garnered 45.2 percent and Dede Scozzafava, a Republican state legislator who suspended her candidacy and backed Owens, still picked up 5.5 percent.

A year earlier, Virginia, New Jersey, Westchester and the 23rd Congressional District voted for Barack Obama. And yet last night, only the 23rd Congressional District cast its lot with the Democrats.

In the final round of pre-election polls, Hoffman was leading. By early Wednesday, Hoffman was delivering a concession speech. Something went very wrong for Hoffman. And what went wrong is a cautionary note as the Republicans head into 2010.

Reality on the ground matters. John McHugh won re-election in 2008 with 65 percent of the vote, while Obama was winning the same district by only 5 percent. In 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush won the district by less than 5 points. Those numbers should have told Hoffman that, yes, the seat was winnable, but that an unalloyed movement conservative message was not necessarily going to be a winner in a general election.

In 1992, Ross Perot garnered 24 percent in the 23rd C.D., as opposed to the 16 percent he won in New York and the 19 percent he won nationally. Clearly, the 23rd C.D. is hospitable to independent message, and in fact, last night independent voters went strongly for Chris Christie in New Jersey and for Bob McDonnell in Virginia.

However, what plays well among a party’s base can scare a larger electorate. The 23rd C.D. is located in upstate New York, not South Carolina. As a congressman John McHugh was not Senator Jim DeMint or Congressman Joe Wilson. McHugh was a moderate conservative, not a firebrand.

The conservative movement’s displeasure with the Republican Scozzafava is understandable. Scozzafava was profligate on spending, all too eager to please the unions, and out of step with the GOP on social issues.

Still, Hoffman’s campaign forgot that local issues and the local electorate matter -- even if Obama is president. According to The Cook Political Report House analyst David Wassermank, Hoffman’s backers forgot that keeping the Army base at Fort Drum open and repair of the Champlain Bridge between New York and Vermont mattered to the voters in the 23 C.D.. Successful congressional elections are seldom crusades.

Nationally, the GOP is poised to do well in 2010. The economy is sluggish. Unemployment hovers at 10 percent. Independents are now swinging Republican. The president and his party are now identified as the party of deficits, big government, and a failed stimulus. The audacity of hope is now a banal slogan.

And yet if Republican activists decide that ideological purity must come first, that Maine’s Olympia Snowe must vote like Texas' Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, that Illinois’ Mark Kirk must sound like Minnesota’s Michelle Bachman; and that Connecticut’s Rob Simmons must be a clone of Alaska’s Palin then the GOP will have squandered an opportunity.

Lloyd Green is an attorney. He served in the Justice Department during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.