Who Speaks for the GOP? (A Continuing Series)

Washington Matters

Who Speaks for the GOP? (A Continuing Series)

All eyes are on an upstate New York district with history of moderates.

With just a week to go before the off-year election, the evidence is growing that the contest with the biggest long-term consequence may well be the one to decide who'll represent New York's 23rd  District, which stretches along a wide swath of land near the Canadian border. This is not to suggest the gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey don't matter -- especially if Republicans are able to seize both from Democratic control -- but the contest in the 23rd will tell us a lot, no matter who wins.

It's pretty clear that the battle for the soul of the Republican Party is raging as hot as ever, and the 23rd has become the microcosm. Sarah Palin made that clear last week when she endorsed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over the GOP standard bearer, Dede Scozzafava. Scozzafava has been endorsed by the official party hierarchy, as well as Newt Gingrich, who heretofore passed pretty well as a conservative representing the Republican party base.

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Scozzafava is a moderate, as was her predecessor, John McHugh (tapped by Obama to be secretary of the Army), and most of the other congressmen who have kept this seat in Republican hands for generations. A Democrat has not represented the district since 1871. The moderate leanings of the district allowed President Obama to carry it last year, 52% to 47%. Former President George W. Bush won by about the same margin in 2000 and 2004.

Believing strongly that a moderate candidate has the best chance to win in the district, Republican officials aren't backing off of their support of Scozzafava, but conservatives say winning isn't enough if the candidate won't push their agenda. In endorsing Hoffman on her Facebook page last week, Palin said she couldn't back Scozzafava because she is no different than her Democratic opponent, Bill Owens, who because of the GOP split, now has a small lead in most public opinion polls. "Political parties must stand for something," Palin wrote, in an obvious slap at the party's Washington establishment. She backed up her endorsement with a contribution from her political action committee. Hoffman also has the support of former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, another darling of the Republican right.


Gingrich defended his endorsement of Scozzafava and refused to back off, arguing that conservatives will never take back power in Washington unless they are open to more moderate Republicans. His defense of the much-denigrated big tent theory is very practical: It's the only way to get enough votes to carry out a conservative agenda.

To say conservative Republicans are incensed and excited over this battle hardly captures the heated debate going on in GOP circles. How the race plays out won't settle the argument, but it will provide clues to what happens next. If Hoffman manages to pull out a victory, expect conservatives to seize it as proof of their view that there's no need to compromise and to launch a full-scale scorched earth strategy. If Scozzafava wins, the GOP establishment will breathe a sigh of relief, but the Sarah Palins of the party will just carry the fight to the next battleground. And if Democrat Owens wins, the two GOP factions will blame each other and fight on.

Unfortunately, no one seems to be looking beyond this election (or any election) to the problem of governing. Democrats did well in 2008 by welcoming moderates into their fold, but now they're finding it's awfully hard to agree on legislation when the party represents so many points of view. But a Republican Party consisting of just the right won't fare any better. Not as long as it takes 60 votes to do anything in the Senate. And not as long as compromise remains a dirty word -- or worse, a sign of weakness used as a club by the other party.