A Conservative Earthquake, in New York and Beyond

There’s nothing inevitable about a Crist nomination, and conservatives intend to see to it. Rubio is no well-intentioned but inept amateur. He‘s got the political experience, skills, and polish to go head-to-head with Crist. Money definitely matters, but the money will come to Rubio if he continues to run a dynamic, engaging campaign. He won the endorsement and a cover story from the always-influential National Review, George Will has written good things about him, and some conservative heavyweights are early endorsers, including Mike Huckabee.

Doug Hoffman has won the support of Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson, Dick Armey, Steve Forbes, Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachman. Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota governor and probable GOP presidential candidate, has endorsed him as well. Some of those are bound to also come Rubio’s way.

A conspicuous exception -- Newt Gingrich, who is backing Scozzafava. From Politico, regarding Gingrich’s decision:

In defending his endorsement of Scozzafava to the National Review, Gingrich warned conservatives that "if you seek to be a perfect minority, you’ll remain a minority."

Gingrich misses the mark here. Conservatives are seeking to build a majority based on clearly defined principles communicated to voters. They’re also doing a better job of reading the trends -- in particular, movement among independents is going their way. The big-tent strategy that Gingrich is alluding to, and that failed to work for George W. Bush, is proving problematic for President Obama as well.

For the Democrats to build congressional majorities, especially House majorities, they had to poach enough Republican or Republican-leaning seats in 2006 and 2008. They did so successfully by recruiting center to slightly center-right candidates. But there have been meaningful, perhaps intractable problems by creating majorities with palpable ideological and electoral politics divisions. Moderate House Democrats from competitive districts are hard-pressed to support any health care proposal that includes a public option or a reasonable facsimile. They’re somewhat uncomfortable with the idea, but would be out-of-step with voters back home regardless. They just may be pressured out of their seats in 2010, either by voting with their leadership and against their constituents or by the failure of the leadership to craft a broadly acceptable health care initiative and to muster the votes to pass it.

Sprawling, disparate majority coalitions aren’t working anymore. More than a generation ago, party bosses and congressional leaders had the means to assert strong discipline on rank-and-file members of Congress. That ability to discipline members has been substantially weakened over time. Members certainly aren’t free agents, but today they enjoy far greater latitude in positioning and voting.

The Democrats’ electoral strategy may have worked in winning back the House and Senate, but it may be foundering in terms of a governing strategy. If majorities won in elections can’t be translated into governing majorities, the handiwork is inconsequential and likely short-lived.

Does Doug Hoffman have the momentum to carry him past both major party candidates? That’s hard to predict. But this is for certain: The special election in New York’s 23rd district needs to be a wake-up call to politics-as-usual Republicans. Conservative voters and leaders are no longer going to rubber-stamp candidates with "R" by their names.