Now that the tidal wave/tsunami/earthquake of Nov. 2 has finished rolling across the political landscape, we find ourselves with the opportunity to focus in on the aftermath, particularly in my favorite area, the Northeast. The Grand Old Party made some truly historic gains in seizing control of the House and picked up some impressive real estate in the Senate as well, but I can assure you that it didn’t happen entirely on backs of hard-core, “three legs of the stool” conservatives.
In February of this year, in this very space, I took a look ahead at what November might hold for Republicans in this part of the country and whether or not a significant rebound could take place for the GOP without letting go of that whole “purge the RINOs” mentality. With a couple of glaring exceptions, I didn’t do too badly at prognosticating.
On the Senate side, we assumed that the GOP would hang on to Judd Gregg’s old seat in New Hampshire, and Kelly Ayotte did so with a nearly two to one margin. Richard Blumenthal was probably never in any serious danger of losing in Connecticut, and as predicted he defeated Linda McMahon in double digits, despite her running a very spirited campaign and spending a hefty chunk of her considerable fortune. Other Senate seats, such as both in New York, were never really in play after the state party failed to coax any of the big ticket names off the bench.
The one shocker — and great news for Republicans — came in Pennsylvania, where I had predicted that the moderate swing voters would find Pat Toomey too conservative for their tastes, but he’s on his way to the upper chamber now. Of course, he may have been aided a bit by the turmoil surrounding Joe Sestak having to win a primary against Arlen Specter, who was a Republican, a Democrat, and for all I know had briefly filed on the Rent is Too Damn High Party line. Even so, Toomey squeaked out a 51-49 nail biter, telling me that Pennsylvania is still far more purple than either red or blue and will bear watching in the future.
The races in the House of Representatives were far more intriguing to me. As foretold, Republicans snapped up both of the seats in New Hampshire and did a fine job of retaking four spots in Pennsylvania. New York was the real story for me, though, and not just because I call the Empire State home. As I wrote here back in May of 2009, the herd of New York Republicans had been thinned down to a scant three seats out of our 29 districts, and African white rhinos were laughing at the GOP’s survival chances here. By October, New York Chairman Ed Cox was predicting that his party could claim as many as ten wins here to be seated in the 112th Congress. We wound up getting four. So what happened?
Well, New York is still a predominantly Democratic state, gerrymandered to keep it that way, and even with rising unemployment and a disastrous budget situation in Albany, wins by Republicans are still hard to come by. The four GOP takeovers all came in the upstate region, with candidates who will probably not fit the ideal mold for some textbook conservatives in other parts of the nation.
In the 19th District, Nan Hayworth managed to unseat Representative John Hall, but her conservative bona fides had been challenged by more than a few activists, particularly among the tea party. My friend Raquel Okyay made a point of highlighting some of these complaints, including the fact that the candidate’s husband is a physician who practices at facilities which provide, shall we say, “women’s services.” This doesn’t mean that Nan won’t be a great addition to the Republican caucus, but she might not be pleasing to the entire rank and file at a conservative convention.
To the north and west, the 20th District saw Chris Gibson come back from a 17-point deficit in September to defeat Scott Murphy. Gibson runs a fair bit closer to conservative ideals and is a combat veteran who I have met and deeply respect. I’m sure he will do a fine job.
Continuing in the same compass direction, the 24th District witnessed a rematch between two-term Democrat incumbent Mike Arcuri and businessman Richard Hanna, who hails from near where I grew up and is a terrific guy. But he is also a self-described moderate who was a bit skittish on domestic natural gas drilling during the campaign. Again, a great man who I found personally engaging and I’m confident he’ll serve us well in Congress, but not exactly the type you might run for office in, say, the deep South.
Out due west of my current home lies the last of the New York GOP takeovers in the 29th where Tom Reed whipped Matthew Zeller by double digits to retake Eric “the ticklemaster” Massa’s seat. I first met Tom back in February of this year, and the former mayor of Corning was a top-notch candidate who ran a great campaign and fits the demographics of this traditionally center-right district well. But even he faced the possibility of a brief, ill fated primary challenge from a tea party candidate who felt he could have been a better fit with conservatives.
If you take a look at this map and zoom in on the Northeast, the four districts described above, plus Pennsylvania-10 to the south where Thomas Marino beat out Chris Carney, you will see an oddly shaped donut of Republican pickups with a blue hole in the center. That hole is New York 22 and yes, for full disclosure, that is the race I worked on this year. It pitted Republican and Conservative Party candidate George Phillips against Maurice Hinchey, one of the most liberal members currently seated in the House of Representatives.
Phillips was very possibly the closest match of all the GOP hopefuls listed above to some sort of conservative ideal who might fit in anywhere across the country. He was pro-life, pro-gun, pro-drilling, an open and unapologetic devout Catholic, and signed pledges for both “no new taxes” and the repeal of ObamaCare. And on Tuesday night, the returns finally came back indicating a heartbreaking loss of 52-48 with a roughly 8,000 vote deficit. (For the record, at the time of this writing Phillips has not yet officially conceded and some 14,000 absentee ballots are still being counted.)
So is there anything we can take from these specific results and the less than hoped for wave effect in the Northeast? Perhaps the lesson is that the GOP can still learn something from the “Purge the RINOs” era and their time in the wilderness from 2006 to 2010.
Not every Republican will be a good fit in every district, but they are still Republicans. It remains better to have someone on your team who may only vote with you ¾ of the time than to put a Democrat in the same seat who will support you zero percent. Democrats developed a strategy four years ago which included running blue dogs who were sometimes diametrically opposed to their party on social issues and they ran roughshod over the Republicans. The result was precisely what you saw all summer after four years of Democratic control of Congress and two years of their holding the White House.
If that didn’t teach you anything, there is little more to say. It’s time to welcome the RINOs back and open up the tent a bit. Ideologically purist attitudes may feel good, but they can leave everyone else paying a heavy price.