Scozzafava Struggles for Conservative Support in NY23

In the closing days of special election season, eyes across the nation have turned to the normally sleepy New York 23rd and the curious trajectory of Republican hopes to hold on to a seat they’ve kept almost continually since the 19th century. (Yes, there actually are Republicans in New York, but most of you just couldn’t pick them out of a police lineup.) Dede Scozzafava -- currently in a race for her life with Democrat Bill Owen -- seems on course to either give up the seat or, in the opinion of some, change the flavor of it entirely.

Today we shall examine how the contest arrived at this sorry state of affairs, but first a few words are in order about the district itself. The 23rd is yet another of the Empire State’s bizarrely gerrymandered divisions which could have been cut straight out of an M.C. Escher drawing.

A quick look at the map will reveal how it intentionally dodges the urban strongholds of Syracuse, Utica, and Schenectady, spreading out along the Canadian and Vermont borders. This is some of the most rural real estate in New York, and my family has long maintained a cabin deep in the mountain regions of the district. The people up there tend to be considerably more conservative than one typically thinks of in New York, and they are used to stocking up canned goods and other supplies before winter sets in. (You never know how long it will be before you’ll be able to make it to anything approximating a store during some months.)

However, even with this as a given, observers in other parts of the country should not confuse “conservatives” here with the Republicans you find in the south. This is still New York, after all, and as I previously pointed out in these pages, voters have failed to fall very deeply in love with the GOP even as they grow more and more disenchanted with the Obama administration. While Republicans hold a mild advantage on the generic ballot, the residents of the 23rd show a wildly independent streak and the president won handily here with 52 percent of the vote. Since 2004, nothing in New York is to be taken for granted by anyone with an “R” after their name.

The original nomination of Ms. Scozzafava came about as most such matters are handled anywhere to the north and west of the Big Apple. The local power brokers made their decision, quietly called in the muscle of the Hudson Valley old money families, and the deal was done before anyone could be bothered to raise a fuss. This particular selection, however, began raising eyebrows immediately, sending conservative blogger Michelle Malkin into apoplectic fits where she labeled the candidate “an ACORN-friendly, union-pandering, tax-and-spend radical Republican.”

Granted, Dede gives the appearance of being a bit to the left of even traditionally RINO-leaning New York Republicans. She’s moderately pro-choice (yes, there is such a thing), being a supporter of Roe v. Wade while allowing for reasonable restrictions on the practice, and has voiced support for gay rights. She’s also married to a union organizer and has given a thumbs-up to card check.

Those two factors alone would likely have been enough to send Ms. Malkin to the barricades, but Dede Scozzafava has committed the additional sin of having previously been aligned with the Working Families Party (WFP). People not familiar with the local lay of the land tend to mistakenly label the WFP as a socialist organization, though it’s far from it by any reasonable measure. The New York branch has, in the past, endorsed Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and New York Conservatives, along with their own slate of candidates in local races. They are about as independent as they come and draw a small but significant base of support in the upstate region.

Beyond Dede’s lack of social conservative bona fides, this race was complicated even further by the decision of the NRCC to dip a toe in this already boiling pool and support her over Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. This has proven to be a particularly stinging bee in the bonnet of many conservatives, including William Kristol. These complaints bear a striking resemblance to the internecine warfare currently taking place in Florida between the national GOP-anointed Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio. In each case, conservative ire is directed at party leadership which endorses a moderate over the potential local selection of a more fire-breathing conservative.

But what if the RNCC is simply more interested in winning?

Despite the various bits of crowing over some recent Siena polls which show Hoffman doing better than we might have expected, the reality on the ground hasn’t changed here. Just as the WFP isn’t actually the Mao-loving, socialist haven many pundits would like to imagine, the New York Conservative Party is not a real powerhouse in Empire State politics. They typically align with the GOP, albeit sullenly, because they have historically been unable to elect their own candidates above the county level. When they do run their own way they prove to be nothing but spoilers, which is exactly what they may line up to do this November.

Hoffman seems to be filling the role of Chris Dagget in New Jersey, where Rasmussen is hinting that he may yet hand a victory to Jon Corzine, who really should have had no chance of getting within smelling distance of Chris Christie. If his current numbers hold and he keeps attracting the national attention (and dollars) of angry conservatives, yet another New York congressional seat could transfer over to the Democrats in what has historically been a safe GOP seat. And this comes at a time when the N.Y. Republican delegation has shrunk to a number which can be counted on one hand and Pete King may well be redistricted out of a job following the next census.

You may not care much for Dede if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, but she would still caucus with the Republicans. This may be a time for a little less anger and a bit more concern over how many seats you would like to pick up in 2010. Would you really rather see a Democrat in that chair? Then again, judging by the antics in Florida and the hyperventilating of the chattering class, perhaps you would.