One day after she dropped out of the congressional race for New York’s 23rd congressional district, Republican Dede Scozzafava lobbed a grenade at Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson, and the rest of her critics.
She endorsed a Democrat.
To Ms. Palin and the others, that will come as no surprise. The former Alaska governor had campaigned for Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman – instead of Ms. Scozzafava – because Scozzafava was already a Democrat in all but name, she and others said.
She supports gay rights and abortion rights, for example.
In some respects, it was merely a lesson in political geography. Scozzafava was at the far left fringes of the Republican Party, and New York’s 23rd congressional district leans solidly to the right. It has never elected a Democrat.
Over time, the mismatch simply became clearer.
Yet in her letter endorsing Democrat Bill Owens, Scozzafava tapped into a deep uncertainty within the Republican Party: Does the party’s increasing insistence on ideological purity undermine its ability to compete with the Democrats nationally?
“In Bill Owens, I see a sense of duty and integrity that will guide him beyond political partisanship,” she wrote. “He will be an independent voice devoted to doing what is right for New York.”
This “big tent” strategy – welcoming conservatives into the party in an effort to win elections – has its own political costs. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeatedly stressed her desire to pass a healthcare reform bill with a “robust” government run public option for health insurance. In the end, however, she was forced to water down the public option to placate Democrats from conservative districts.
Yet, in all likelihood, she will still have the votes to pass sweeping healthcare reform. By contrast, Republicans are barely even at the political table in Washington.
This comes as the political landscape nationwide would seem to be shifting in Republicans’ favor. Some 40 percent of Americans describe themselves as conservative, while only 20 percent consider themselves liberal, according to a recent Gallup poll.
The question for Republicans, however, is in what “conservative” means.
For Palin, the decision to back Mr. Hoffman’s ideology over Scozzafava’s affiliation is part of an effort to cleanse liberal ideals from the party platform – appealing to these small government “conservatives” more plainly.
“In the short run there's clear energy here in the small government/antigovernment argument,” said Ronald Brownstein, a political analyst for the National Journal, on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday.
But Mr. Brownstein suggested that, in the longer term, the trend would make it hard for Republicans to make significant gains on the Democrats: “I do wonder about whether Republicans are going to have the freedom to maneuver they'll need to recover in some of those [liberal-leaning] blue states where they've significantly eroded.”
It is an idea that has been repeatedly echoed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
He told CNN recently: “This idea that we're suddenly going to establish litmus tests, and all across the country, we're going to purge the party of anybody who doesn't agree with us 100 percent – that guarantees Obama's reelection. That guarantees Pelosi is speaker for life. I mean, I think that is a very destructive model for the Republican Party.”
Follow us on Twitter.