Alan Greenblatt is a GOVERNING correspondent.E-mail: email@example.com
Along with the races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey, the marquee race in the country is next month's special election for a congressional seat in upstate New York. It's shaping up to be a prime example of national Republicans squandering the chance to rebuild their power by insisting on ideological purity.
Conservatives have never lined up behind the GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman who is considered too moderate for their tastes. Instead, they are backing accountant Doug Hoffman, who holds the Conservative Party line.
Yesterday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed Hoffman. From her highly active Facebook page:
"Unfortunately, the Republican Party today has decided to choose a candidate that more than blurs the lines, and there is no real difference between the Democrat and the Republican in this race. This is why Doug Hoffman is running on the Conservative Party's ticket," she wrote. "Republicans and conservatives around the country are sending an important message to the Republican establishment in their outstanding grassroots support for Doug Hoffman: no more politics as usual."
This morning, Dick Armey, who has helped spearhead the Tea Party movement as head of FreedomWorks -- and served as the GOP's majority leader in the U.S. House -- breaks party ranks to endorse Hoffman, too:
"We [Republicans] win when we are us. We lose when we are Democrat lite," he told Redstate.com editor Erick Erickson. "We attract people by being small government conservatives," Big Government Republicans, I would tell the Republican Party leadership it cannot win if it insists on recruiting and supporting candidates out of step with the voters."
This is a seat Republicans could win, but won't. President Obama barely carried the district last year but his Army Secretary John McHugh easily carried the seat as a Republican eight times. In fact, according to McHugh's Wikipedia profile, Republicans have held the district since 1871.
But polls show that Scozzafava will lose and perhaps finish third. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich explains the pragmatic need to support candidates despite occasional disagreement with them on certain issues if you're going to build a winning coalition, in a blog post from yesterday in which he seeks to explain why he's just about the only conservative backing the GOP nominee:
Through my experience as Speaker of the House and building a Republican majority in 1994, I have learned that if America wants a conservative majority in Washington, parts of that majority are going to disagree.
The choice in New York is a practical one: We can split the conservative vote and guarantee the election of a Democrat in a Republican seat in a substantial loss of opportunity. Or we can find a way to elect someone who has committed to vote for the Republican leader, has committed to vote against all tax increases, has committed to vote against cap-and-trade, and is a strong ally of the NRA.
To be honest, I haven't followed this race and I'm not sure exactly what about Scozzafava makes her so unacceptable to conservatives. But I do know that Newt is right -- sometimes parties have to bend and accommodate politicians who don't agree with their gospel 100 percent of the time if they want to hold power. Particularly in certain districts.
There's obviously nothing wrong with a party adhering to principles. You wouldn't want parties that stood for nothing but the accumulation of power. But rigid adherence to ideology at the cost of losing winnable seats means you're no longer acting like a party. You're acting like an interest group.
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