Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | October 24, 2009

This Is What They’re Waiting On

So.  Big election coming up.  The off-year gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey can’t help being significant, of course.  They always are, even when Americans are not in the midst of what may be the greatest national debate over our political direction since 1860.  There are elections in many of the states, from the race to fill Ellen Tauscher’s seat in California’s 10th district, to the 11 constitutional amendments being voted on in Texas, to the seven seats in the Georgia statehouse being filled by special election, and the school board pick in my own town in the California Southland.

But of course the race that is suddenly front and center is the one for John McHugh’s seat in the 23rd Congressional district of New York.  McHugh, a Republican, had represented the district since 1993.  The district, in fact, has elected Republicans consistently since 1971.  But even in upstate New York, where there is more conservatism than in other parts of the state, a “safe” Republican seat is not what it would be in Texas, Mississippi, or Oklahoma.  McHugh is a “moderate” Republican with a lifetime ACU rating of 71 (i.e., ten points lower than John McCain’s), and vacated his seat when he accepted Obama’s appointment to the post of Secretary of the Army.  The Democratic challenger for the seat, Bill Owens, is a Catholic Air Force retiree with a mainstream biography, benign demeanor, and center-left political positions.  He is not actually much different, except for party affiliation (which he only declared after being chosen as the Democrats’ candidate; he was previously an independent), from John McHugh.


The drama that has catapulted the NY-23 race into national notoriety is all on the GOP side.  The state GOP selected a left-leaning – very left-leaning – state assemblywoman, Dede Scozzafava*, as its challenger in the race.  Scozzafava has run an oddly hapless campaign, gaining fame so far mainly for getting herself photographed in front of a forest of her Conservative Party rival’s campaign signs, and for a strange incident this week in which her campaign called the police about a reporter from the Weekly Standard who was merely present at a presser and asking the candidate questions.  (Even the left-wing websites are agreed that John McCormack of TWS did nothing out of order, and the Scozzafava campaign just went round the bend.)

New York conservatives called foul on the state GOP’s choice, and on the endorsement of Scozzafava at the national level.  Now businessman Doug Hoffman, whose biography reads a lot like Bill Owens’ but whose political positions are conservative, is running as a Conservative Party candidate, and garnering a list of big-name supporters that grows daily.  Sarah Palin has joined Rick Santorum, Dick Armey, Steve Forbes, and Ken Blackwell in endorsing Hoffman, and Tim Pawlenty is said to be leaning toward an endorsement.  As Hot Air reports, Hoffman’s war chest grew exponentially in the 24 hours after Palin’s endorsement.  Scozzafava, meanwhile, with endorsements from Michael Steele and the RNC, Newt Gingrich, and Susan Collins, has the least monetary support of the three candidates, and has continued losing support to Hoffman in this week’s poll.

There are reasons why the NY-23 contest may well not be a “referendum” on the direction of the Obama administration – a character being attributed by many pundits to all of the electoral races culminating on 3 November.  The Democrats are running a mainstream center-leftist in a district that has been electing the most moderate of rightists for decades.  The counties that make up the district went, in the aggregate, for Obama in 2008, but they also went for Kerry in 2004.  Both district wins for the presidential ticket were razor-thin, but they did occur, and were compatible each time with reelecting John McHugh (with healthy margins including a 60% landslide in 2008).  This is not, then, a bastion of bedrock conservatism.  But of the three candidates running in 2009, Scozzafava is more leftist than McHugh, and seems to be even more leftist than Owens.  Hoffman is clearly conservative.  There’s a good chance Owens is coming across as the “candidate most like McHugh” in this race.

But this race is particularly meaningful for the GOP.  It is likely to serve as a bellwether for Congress as well, as our representatives ponder health care legislation.  Doug Hoffman doesn’t have to win this race for its outcome to reverberate through Capitol Hill; he just has to be the spoiler who makes sure Scozzafava loses it.  Getting 23% of the vote – the share suggested by today’s district poll – would put Hoffman in the tallest cotton, third-party-candidate-wise.  He may well get more than 23%, and indeed could prevent any candidate from receiving a majority of the votes cast.  It’s even conceivable for Hoffman to outpoll Scozzafava, and end up head-to-head with Owens.

Pundits have correctly identified the NY-23 race as a big showdown for the GOP.  But it’s more than that.  NY-23 is a better indicator than perhaps any other race out there of the environment the House will face in the 2010 election.  It is not a referendum on incumbency, but it is a referendum on the traits that kept the departed incumbent in office.  Are those the traits voters will go for again?  If so, they will probably pick Owens in the first round over either of the less-mainstream candidates.  If not – House incumbents will all sit up and take notice.

This race will unquestionably be a measure of the strength of “grassroots” conservatism as well, and of its prospects against the traditionalists who have regained control, since 1994, of the RNC and many state party affiliates.  The grassroots man in this contest, Hoffman, doesn’t have to win for a point to be made; he just has to get a scary number of votes.  It won’t hurt if he’s awash in cash in the last 10 days before the election, with his endorsements from some of the biggest names in conservatism.  House incumbents are accustomed to running easily against poorly-funded opposition candidates whose rallies are seldom enlivened by charismatic figures like Sarah Palin or Ken Blackwell.  A concerted and potentially effective groundswell will not just jeopardize incumbents’ political futures – it will cost them a lot of money.

Moreover, the GOP is being presented with a major decision point in the NY-23 race.  It is unlikelier by the day that the GOP’s candidate of choice, Scozzafava, will vindicate the wisdom or thought-process of the party leadership.  Will the RNC then embrace the grassroots direction embodied by Hoffman and his supporters?  Or will it persist in backing what it considers “safe” candidates with reputations as “moderates” or “centrists,” and even candidates with strong leftist leanings?  (As an aside, it remains unclear why the New York GOP would run a strong social leftist in a district that has consistently reelected very mainstream social traditionalists, if not agenda-checking social conservatives.  There had to be candidates who were simply more like McHugh than Scozzafava is.  It seems unlikely that she was the only option to the left of Doug Hoffman.)

If the Republicans do decide to take a more conservative tack – or even if it becomes obvious after 3 November that they’d be smart to – the Democrats will be less and less inclined to put it all on the line with extremely unpopular health care legislation; and perhaps even less so with cap-and-trade (Waxman-Markey).  Congress is undoubtedly holding off on any major action on either issue until after the election:  not just to avoid prejudicing the races but to analyze their outcomes before going forward.

Oddly enough, the GOP may have done us all more good by setting up this pitched battle than it would have by selecting a less bizarre candidate for the NY-23 contest.  A mainstream traditionalist who was more like McHugh would probably have won fairly easily, but such a victory would have meant little and taught us less.  For conservative Republicans, the opportunity to have a crucial and portentous showdown in an off year, and in a single Congressional district, can even be seen as a gift.


* There seems to be a cottage industry out there dedicated to jokes about Scozzafava’s name.  It does not, we should note, mean “Scottish bean,” as some blogging wags have deduced.  It comes from the verb “scozzare,” meaning to shell, or remove the shell from, and translates best as “bean-sheller.”  Funny enough in its own right, certainly; but mainly evocative of a historical reality about the food industry in Mediterranean Europe.  Bean-shelling was a trade in Italy for centuries.  So  let the bean-shelling jokes fly.


  1. FYI, in New York state it doesn’t matter if 50% is reached for Congressional elections. (In fact, that might not matter anywhere for Congress). Whoever gets the most votes will win – no runoffs.

  2. Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

    Having been roundly rejected by the electorate for being too right-wing, the GOP is determined to deliver itself the coup de grace by having a clear-out of the ideologicaly impure. In this scenario, anyone who is remotly electable in our mainly tolerant centrist and non-ideological nation will be ruthlessly culled. Then, fast-forward to 2012 to an unelectable Palin/Lieberman GOP ticket.

    This is not a good thing for our democracy. Our polity is best served by a reasonable balance between the two big parties. Hopefully the GOP centre will reassert itself and stop the noisy right-wing fringe from destroying their party.

    This isn’t a specific criticism of the GOP. The left wing of the Dems reacts to defeat in the same way – by blaming defeat on their party not being sufficiently left-wing.

    The opposing fringes also usually agree as well in being ‘dissapointed’ in the electorate for ‘letting them down’, and blaming defeat, not in the rejection of off-centre policies and personalities, but in the failure by the electorate to “understand” what it was voting for.

    Our sensible majority understands only too well.

    • What´s your evidence that Hoffman is intolerant?

  3. From what I have read, Hoffman is an entirely plausible, knowledgeable and serious candidate, an MBA and selfmade businessman who came from a humble background. He is more likely to work to restore some fiscal sanity in Washington.

    When the outsider in a three-way race gets 23 % he represents something more than the fringe. It is a sure sign that he should have been on the GOP ticket in the first place.

    And who says that Scozzafave represents “the middle”? Scozzafava is arguably far more liberal than McHugh. I was hard pressed to find a single issue in which she was to right of Bill Owens, the Democratic candidate, who on a gut level also looks more polished and competent than her. From a centrist perspective, there is nothing to choose here. Let the Democrat vote for the primitive Keynesian insanity, the “employee free choice act” and all the other madness. At least the great middle won´t be confused who did it.

  4. ny stater — thanks for the info, and welcome to the blog. Your comments will post automatically from now on, so don’t be shy.

    There are some states where it takes a majority of the votes cast, but it’s useful to know NY isn’t one of them.

  5. El Gordo, I agree that characterizing Scozzafava as a centrist would be inaccurate. The NY GOP wasn’t trying to appeal to the center with her, it was trying to appeal to the left.

    • I mean, I understand the opposite argument – Scozzafava won the nomination process, Hoffman lost it, too many third party candidates have done and will do serious damage to the GOP and the cause of conservatism. All true. I also have been at odds with those “RINO hunters” who apparently would prefer to stay in opposition forever. I will defend people like Rudy Giuliani or Meg Whitman as long as they get things done.

      Still the principle should be to get away with as much conservatism as possible.

      It is what Democrats do. They don´t like candidates who are more conservative than they absolutely have to be. After the Republican string of victories from 2000 to 2004 they didn´t decide that they had to make their peace with Bush. Quite the opposite. (I know, they ran those Blue Dogs. Even so)

  6. Yes, bet they won with the most leftwing administration, ever, of course all the tell tale signs, like those inferred from that faux thesis were hidden by the media. There were some discerning persons who saw through it all, like
    Hoffman’s most recent endorser. Since Scozzofazza will likely run out funds, she will likely drop out, and it will be head to head, bwtween Hoffman and Owens, a proxy fight
    of teapartiers and the ACORN/SEIU crowd

  7. What, you think that these guys are more left-wing than the Andy Jackson cabal? Or them Rosenvelters?

  8. I would love to see Hoffman win that race running as an Independent. As a libertarian, I’d like to see the Republican party (and hopefully the country) take on a less-spending, less-govt platform. Perhaps the shot across the bow of the RNC chosen candidate getting knocked off by a more rightward Hoffman will cause the GOP to drift a little towards what the tea partiers have been clamoring for.

    Of course, the outrageous spending going on right now in Congress is maybe the best thing for those of us who want some fiscal sanity returned to our country. Then again, it may be the worst thing. The jury is still out I figure.

  9. One thing that people rarely bring up is that McHugh was one of the handful of Republican House defectors on cap-and-trade – not that I think the issue bears very much on the election itself or understanding it. That fact, as well as the perhaps related fact that he’s effectively joined the Obama Administration, does tend to underline that this is a New York Republican district, and, more critically, that the context within which candidates were named was “Age of Obama,” not “reaction wave” – Obama the Sort Of God, not Obama as potential Carter II or Worse.

    As for the other reasons they ended up with the Scozz, it’s easy to suspect that the remnants of whatever gave NY-23 a McHugh were hardly the kind of people to go scouring the countryside for the next Sarah Palin or Ross Perot. Apparently, they were unimpressed by Hoffman’s knowledge of and engagement with purely district-level issues – infrastructure improvements and the like (i.e., more pork, please). In addition, they had to make their choice when Obama was much more popular and “death of the GOP” stories were everywhere – in other words, not the most favorable conditions for GOP candidate recruitment.

    None of this is to excuse their choice or their over-correction toward an alternative vision of Northeastern Republicanism under Obamaism Ascendant. In short, they were looking toward a future of begging crumbs at the left-liberal table, and they thought DS might be a serviceable hack with a decent chance of uniting a demoralized conservative vote (she does seem to have at least a couple of conservative positions) with crossover voters. Chalk it up to the best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men…

    As for the current situation, I think the key aspect of the race as a harbinger for the future is that, more than the Virginia or NJ gubernatorials or, I believe, the other races mentioned by Opticon, is that it represents, via Palin, Thompson, et al, a clear attempt to nationalize a district level election. If current political trends remain in place next year (big if, of course), the Ds and their RINO and DIABLO abettors will want to fight hundreds if not thousands of local battles. The conservative Rs will be trying, as here, to run 1 national election.

    For conservative insurgents, this ought to stand as good practice. I agree it seems already to be working out somewhat positively. Even spoiling the RINO/DIABLO tactic sends a good message. I’d have to know a lot more about the district to know whether Hoffman really has a chance even with the big name endorsements and the possible DS implosion.

  10. Well you really can’t separate this campaign from the shameful Tedesco race, run dome months back by the RNC and the NRCC, and their bad calls on Specter, Crist (my neck of the woods)
    et al. You’re right it’s a proxy fight specially since McDonnell and Cristie have proved so dissapointing

  11. What’s so disappointing to you about McDonnell?

  12. well his unwillingness to put forward an aggressive platform, to disdain the Southern Virginians vover the Northern Virginians. this is in part to mitigate the coverage in the post of that 20 year old thesis. But Christie has been the biggest dissapointment. Why do these posts appear four hours ahead, if you’re in California

    • So he has ALREADY failed in your eyes? Come on. Sometimes I wonder if parts of the conservative base are even interested in actually governing.

      Now I don´t know all the details, but what good would it do if he had an aggressive platform and went down with flying flags just to make a point?

  13. narciso — the default time for a WordPress blog is Greenwich Mean Time (England). I’ve never reset it, although others have explained how to. I kind of like it so won’t be resetting it any time soon.

  14. CKM — it’s a useful point that Scozzafava was selected when Obama hadn’t declined quite so much in the polls. I believe the selection occurred in the July-Aug timeframe though, so it wasn’t really that Obama was riding high. His slide had already started by then.

    I’d forgotten McHugh was one of the GOP defectors on C&T. I don’t know what dog NY-23 might have in that fight — Bono Mack in my district defected because alternative energy gets huge federal bucks in this part of the country. It’s wind-farm and solar-panel central here, in the great sun-baked Venturi tube of the Inland Empire.

    • Opticon, the Scozz might have been selected in Jul-Aug, but I suspect the terms were set much earlier. Anyway, on clear evidence the selectors were not exactly the most forward-looking bunch of party regulars in the country, and, even today, at this “late” date, there are still many on the left of right operating under Age of Obama/Death of Conservatism assumptions. A few of those many even supply comments on your blog, and, to be fair, none of us can know for sure that history will cooperate with a new set of Carter 2.0 assumptions.

      • I think the Carter 2.0 assumptions will avail us of many opportunities to ‘teach’ conservatism once again. In order for the long climb back into relevance to begin, we need to have in place eloquent teachers eager to use real time issues to remind Americans that there is another choice. Scozza is not the teacher I’d want representing Republicans – one can’t come up with answers when they don’t recognize the questions.

  15. Scozzafava is a mendacious squish on card check, that’s a big give-away. She has reassured big labor of her support for it, yet has also talked around it to imply that maybe she’s not SO much for it, when speaking to the right.

    I think most of us draw a line somewhere at which we say, Having the “R” after the name is what matters. The difference is really where we draw the line — not in the fact that it gets drawn. My sense is that there’s a major shift in the location of that mental line, for a growing majority in the GOP. McCain isn’t much inside my line, but he IS inside it, even though I think he’s a big-government guy. Scozzafava is over my line — and I think she is for a lot more Republicans than the party leadership realizes.

    That doesn’t mean everyone agrees on exactly where the line is. I don’t know that we’ll ever have the coherence of the left in that regard. It’s no great insight that that’s our problem — a lot of pundits have realized it. We already ARE the “big tent,” which is why there are divisions in the GOP that the Democrats don’t really have to deal with.

    If more people shift to drawing the SAME line, I think it will be because the threat to our limited, constitutional republic seems more and more like an emergency. People will be galvanized not by the desire to make government do stuff, but by the threat of how MUCH it’s preparing to do. When government is doing too much is harder to get people to agree on than a lot of folks think.

  16. Good going. It doesn’t matter if the Republican candidate loses in a district that’s absurdly hard for a Republican to lose because……because….because of the wonderful thing it is when the forces of reaction prove that they have the clout in names and cash to propel the Democratic candidate to victory.
    Yes we can…. because….because…because

  17. Right, we should have pulled for the sort of Republican candidate who drops out and endorses the Democrat.

    • Well you sure shouldn’t be pulling for the type of party that decides to futtbuck its own candidate.

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