By Mark Willen, Senior Political Editor October 16, 2009 There's no question that Republican prospects have improved remarkably in the last few months, and GOP leaders are now looking to make big gains in Congress in 2012. They hope to set the stage for that next month by winning the two governorships at stake. A sweep would be significant because President Obama won both states last year. In Virginia, a key bellwether, GOP candidate Bob McDonnell seems to have a comfortable lead over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds. And New Jersey is a toss-up, with Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine fighting for his life against challenger Chris Christie. But there's another election next month that might not bode so well for Republicans. Sponsored Content It's a special election in New York's 23rd District to fill the seat vacated by Republican John McHugh, who was tapped by President Obama to be secretary of the Army. The 23rd District, a relatively rural area bordering Lake Champlain, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway, is an historically Republican district. McHugh was elected in 2006 with 63% of the vote and reelected in 2008 with 65%. But while the district has been dominated by the GOP, it has a lot of independents, who appreciated the fact that McHugh and his predecessor, six-term Rep. David O'Brien Martin, were among the dwindling core of moderate Republicans in Congress. To keep the seat, which should have been relatively easy, the GOP nominated Dede Scozzafava, an abortion rights moderate who could appeal to the many independents in the district. Advertisement She was doing well against Democrat Bill Owens until the more conservative wing of the party -- now often called the Tea Party activists -- denounced her selection and began pushing Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. That's killing Scozzafava. In a recent Siena poll, Owens drew only 33% of the likely vote -- but that was enough to lead. Scozzafava had 29% while Hoffman had 23%, which clearly would go to Scozzafava if Hoffman weren't in the race. The GOP establishment is spending a lot of money on ads for Scozzafava, but the conservative Club for Growth is doing the same for Hoffman, with many of the ads attacking Scozzafava's record on economic and social issues. Conservatives say they are fired up and have intensity on their side, and they predict they'll soon overcome Owens. But that will be hard to pull off. A Democratic victory in the 23rd won't get nearly as much attention as Republican victories in the two gubernatorial races, but it would still be a worrisome harbinger for the GOP. As the conservative wing gets more active and vocal, it makes it harder for the party to appeal to moderates, and Republicans will always be in the minority party if they can't expand their tent. So come Nov. 3, don't just look to the governor races in New Jersey and Virginia. Smart Republicans will know that what happens in New York could be a sign of trouble as they try to take back the House and Senate.