Opinion

GOP's Beck-Limbaugh wing misreads Hoffman's loss in New York

The renewed effort to field staunch conservatives in competitive districts is sure to backfire.

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In the wake of the strong showing by Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in Tuesday's special congressional election in New York, many Republicans are convinced that his near-win is an affirmation that the GOP should more actively support staunchly conservative nominees in races across the nation.

Yet, despite Mr. Hoffman's emergence, his showing is Pyrrhic and could have dire electoral consequences for the Republican Party.

When former Rep. John McHugh resigned to become secretary of the Army, local Republicans nominated Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava to fill the seat, as her moderation appeared a good fit for the upstate swing district. The Republican National Committee and the GOP House leadership got behind her candidacy.

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However, numerous national leaders, including Sarah Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and scores of conservatives in Congress, unsatisfied with Ms. Scozzafava's stance on abortion, gay marriage, and other issues, bucked their leadership and coalesced around Hoffman. Combined with Scozzafava's miscues, this support almost carried him to victory.

Consequently, many conservative activists and bloggers are hailing Hoffman's campaign as evidence that the GOP should be moving faster to the right. That Scozzafava's late decision to drop out and endorse the Democrat helped seal Hoffman's close defeat is likely only to strengthen this resolve.

This belief could backfire in a big way because it fails to recognize – or willfully ignores – that a one-(strict)-size-fits-all political approach won't appeal to voters across diverse states and regions.

That the Republican Party would undergo some form of introspection after expansive losses last year was to be expected. What makes the party's rightward lurch so destructive is that its leadership is bereft of any centrist voices, as virtually every moderate Republican has retired, been defeated, or has switched parties. When policy stances are crafted by GOP congressional leaders, there are simply no moderate voices in the caucus room to give a different viewpoint.

There is no better illustration of this trend than the current composition of Congress. The Partisan Voting Index measures each congressional district's partisan lean, and, according to its numbers, there are just eight Republicans representing Democratic-leaning districts; conversely, 69 Democrats sit in GOP-leaning districts. At the start of the previous Congress, the split was 48 to14 for Democrats, and 28 to 25 in the prior one.

A national party cannot sustain itself if it does not carve a presence in inhospitable territories. This is why moderates play a key role: they inject fresh insight to perspectives dominated by partisanship, and they help grow talent for Senate and gubernatorial races.

Other measures demonstrate the Republicans' weaknesses. A mid-October CNN poll found that only 36 percent of Americans view the GOP favorably, while 54 percent view the party negatively. The split for the Democratic Party was 53 to 41. A more recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found just 25 percent viewed the GOP positively and 46 viewed it negatively. It also revealed that just 17 percent of respondents identified themselves as Republicans, versus 30 percent as Democrats.

The practical impact of the GOP's identity struggle will be felt in races in the 2010 midterm elections. With Hoffman's close loss, many party activists will now feel emboldened to wade into many more contests, even if that means opposing a slew of quality candidates and primary challenging centrist congressmen in places like Illinois, New Jersey, and North Carolina.

Already, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate, finds his front-runner status for an open Senate seat threatened by a hard-right candidate, and the Club for Growth, an influential group, is promising to fund opponents of Mr. Crist and others. The loss of these seats would further marginalize the Republicans in swing areas.

For their part, stalwarts like Newt Gingrich and Lindsay Graham have begun warning against the futility of only putting up staunch conservatives for office. But their pleadings have been drowned out by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the seething frustrations of Republicans.

In a nation that is so diverse economically, culturally, and politically, a party that enforces a rigid litmus test for membership will not be able to remain viable.

If Republicans continue to move from the center in areas where adherence to conservative ideology is not palatable to a majority of voters, the GOP will not be able to regain Congress or the presidency anytime soon.

Mark Greenbaum is an attorney and freelance writer in Washington. He can be reached at markgreenbaum@gmail.com.

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