Republicans going rogue in upstate New York

A New York congressional election, featuring a third-party conservative challenging the Republican nominee, tests the future of the GOP. Will the Tea Party insurgency prevail?

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
President Obama's appointment of Republican New York Congressman John McHugh as Army Secretary set up the nation's only congressional race this November. There, a battle between the moderate and conservative wings of the GOP is shaking up to be a party battleground.

Pitting conservative purists against party pragmatists, a growing number of national Republican figures are bucking the party standard and backing a third-party candidate in November's special election in upstate New York’s 23rd congressional district. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized this contest as the only congressional election this fall. There is another in California's 10th congressional district.]

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, former Senator Rick Santorum, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, current Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann, former Tennessee Senator and presidential candidate Fred Thompson, and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes have all backed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over Republican Dede Scozzafava.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty – a potential presidential candidate in 2012 – suggested Friday on ABC News that he’s strongly considering backing Hoffman, as well.

“Our nation is at a crossroads, and this is once again a time for choosing,” Ms. Palin, author of the upcoming book, “Going Rogue,” wrote Thursday on her Facebook page. “This is the game-changer,” added Dick Armey, whose Freedom Works organization has supported the Tea Party movement.

Palin, et al. represent what can only be called the Tea Party insurgency, whose adherents point to mainstream Republicans – including party philosopher Newt Gingrich – and their support of Ms. Scozzafava as another sign that the GOP has strayed from its core principles.

Taken together, it means that NY-23 is one of the first real test of voter attitudes 10 months into the Obama presidency. [Editor's note: The original version overstated the sole importance of the contest in New York.]

National Republican figures taking a stand against the Washington wing of the party means two things: Conservatives are now willing to take bold political chances in order to move the party toward purer party principles like small government and lower taxes. But it could also backfire: A Ross Perot-like split of NY-23 could mean the district going to a Democrat, Bill Owens, for the first time in over 100 years.

The White House could hardly have anticipated that fortuitous scenario when picking former NY-23 Congressman John McHugh for a Pentagon post, the move that set up November’s congressional election. [Editor's note: This sentence was amended to take note of another congressional race this fall.]

“This week’s surge of leading conservatives to Hoffman’s camp is a troubling sign for [Scozzafava’s] campaign and the national GOP establishment since several of the recent Hoffman endorsers have significant followings and represent the most energetic part of the Republican base,” writes Andy Barr at the Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance-Star.

Ms. Scozzafava is a moderate-to-liberal Republican, a long-time state legislator who supports gay marriage and abortion rights. Her Democratic opponent, Mr. Owens, leads in the polls as Hoffman, a wealthy upstate businessman, has pulled about 23 percent of the vote, and is gaining fast.

Critics say the battle for Oswego is typical of the fringe politics that are driving the GOP right now. Chris Kelly at the Huffington Post writes that Hoffman “hasn’t just been anointed by a political machine. He’s been kidnapped by drifters.”

And the image of two GOP stalwarts – Armey and Gingrich – lining up on opposite sides of this election underscores the import of the fight.

“The specter of two generals of the 1994 Republican revolution, Gingrich and Armey, taking opposing positions highlights the philosophical divide within the GOP between purists and pragmatists,” writes the Wall Street Journal’s Naftali Bendavid on Friday.

But while big-name GOP stars line up their support, the real story of NY-23 is as a test for whether the much-discussed Tea Party movement from this summer and fall can translate into actual political power – i.e., getting someone elected.

The blogosphere has lit up with “anti-Dede” sites, only exacerbating Ms. Scozzafava’s political problems. Her financial fortunes are also lagging as she’s being outspent on the campaign trail while her own family business is in trouble.

Meanwhile, Tea Party volunteers are reportedly pouring into Hoffman’s campaign office to help canvas the Oswego area.

“They’re making New York 23 a last stand,” blogger Erick Erickson tells Politico. “New York should be a hill to die on for conservative activists.”


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