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A Conservative Earthquake, in New York and Beyond

Establishment Republicans are shrugging their shoulders. In the special election for New York’s 23rd congressional district, conservatives are abandoning the liberal Republican nominee, Dede Scozzafava, in droves.

Smug GOP establishmentarians are proving again that their political seismographs are badly calibrated. The GOP has lined up behind the wrong candidate at the wrong time. Conservatives aren’t going to follow their lead, in New York or elsewhere, anytime soon. Party bosses need to get back in touch or risk hard-to-fix ruptures with conservatives in 2010 and beyond. Conservatives, great and small, are coalescing behind Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party nominee.

New York allows minor parties on election ballots, giving the establishment Republicans a false sense of security as most other states don’t make such allowances. But the old logic that conservatives will have to fall in line elsewhere or risk electing Democrats may not hold. Conservatives are playing by new rules now, and the GOP isn’t showing any signs of getting it.

The GOP establishment persuaded Florida Governor Charlie Crist to jump into next year’s U.S. Senate contest. The nomination process was supposed to be tantamount to a Crist coronation. But then came Marco Rubio — the young, bright, attractive former speaker of the Florida House, and a rock-solid conservative.

Where Rubio is unmistakably conservative, Crist is as wobbly and gritless as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. He embraced President Obama’s failure-of-an-economic stimulus from the start. He joined Senator Lindsey Graham and the climate zanies in supporting cap-and-tax initiatives, though lately he’s going wobbly on that commitment.

Crist, with name recognition, a statewide network, and buckets of money, has the edge. But Rubio is running hard, closing a twenty-nine point gap to fifteen. He’s won a dozen GOP county straw polls, and grassroots conservatives are making that happen. Crist has spent his time raising money and ignoring Rubio, but he’ll train his guns on the former speaker sooner than later as the primary approaches.

A year ago, the conventional wisdom was that Hillary Clinton couldn’t possibly lose to a young, bright, attractive politician. Clinton had even more of the same advantages Crist has — yet everyone knows the rest of the story, to borrow from the late Paul Harvey.

Conservatives are more energized than they’ve been in years, but they’re not just reacting to the leftward lurch of the president and Congress. They’re more keenly aware of their principles and of what they want to see and hear from candidates. “Anyone but the Democrat” isn’t a rallying theme anymore.

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.

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