'Unruly' Conservatives Shock the GOP in NY-23

Politics in America has become so predictable in recent years that the possibility of a shocking upset in a federal election has all but disappeared. Sure, you get the occasional eyebrow raiser such as Hillary's completely unexpected win in the New Hampshire primary and Mike Huckabee's surprisingly easy victory in the Iowa caucuses.

But due to the way congressional districts are drawn these days and the enormous advantage incumbency grants those who are already serving, upsets are few and far between.

Even rarer are successful challenges to the party establishment. This is no surprise given the way both parties arrange things when it comes to elections. Candidates are actively recruited, showered with money from the national party, introduced to people who can shake the money tree for more, and given access to political professionals who help build a serious organization in order to give them every chance to win.

In short, the system is rigged against outsiders who want to horn their way in on the party's action. Challengers who seek to upset the applecart are ignored, left to wither on the vine as money and expertise flow to the party's handpicked favorite.

This is the nature of a political party, so it does no good to bemoan these facts. You may as well be asking an anteater to stop munching on termites and switch to snarfing pate de foie gras than demand that a political party refrain from exercising their power to choose your representatives in Congress or the Senate.

Except that every once and a while, a perfect set of circumstances arises and a challenge to the establishment becomes not only possible but inevitable. And the insurgents who are making the challenge benefit by latching on to a populist wave that was either previously hidden or not believed to be serious by the elites.

Two weeks ago, a betting man would have given you pretty good odds for Dede Scozzafava to win the special election in New York's 23rd congressional district against the Democrat Bill Owens and Doug Hoffman, a little-known accountant running on the Conservative Party ballot line. But, in what may be a harbinger of how wacky and wonderful the 2010 midterm elections might be, Scozzafava, after dropping in the polls to a distant third, has suspended her campaign and the previously unknown Hoffman appears to be the favorite to take the seat.

The wave that very well might overwhelm the Republican establishment in New York's 23rd congressional district has actually been building since before 2006, when the conservative base realized that they were voting for people who talked a good conservative game on the campaign trail but changed their spots once they got to Washington. The issues were overspending by the GOP majority, corruption, and the failure of most Republicans in Congress to adhere to conservative principles. And exit polls from 2006 showed a large number of righties staying home rather than continuing to support incumbents who used them so cynically.

The anger only built in 2008, when longtime conservative foe John McCain won the nomination and proceeded to run one of the more lackluster campaigns in modern history. Even his choice of Sarah Palin could not undo the years of badmouthing the base for which McCain received praise from the New York Times but little else. Exit polls from that race showed at least four million fewer conservatives voted for McCain than voted for Bush in 2004.

Then came the Obama phenomenon and the wave became a a living force, animated by fear of what the president was doing to America and coupled with the seeming inability of the Republican establishment to effectively counter the president's radical agenda.

With no national Republican officeholder picking up the leadership mantle, it fell to talk show hosts and pundits to organize resistance to Obama's plans. It may be argued whether this is truly a good idea, but it is hard to argue with success. What was once a largely dispirited, disorganized, and aimless GOP grassroots has become a dynamic force of resistance over the past few months with the organized opposition to national health care reform manifested at town hall meetings during the summer, the wild success of the tea parties, and, most importantly, the sense of empowerment those events imparted to the masses of conservatives who wanted to do something to fight the liberals.

What has happened in NY-23 is that the newly empowered conservative base decided the national party had gone a candidate too far in choosing liberal Republican Scozzafava to represent them and decided on their own to adopt third-party candidate Doug Hoffman, while telling the GOP establishment to take a hike.

Why the national party believed this colorless career politician who supports gay marriage and would have voted for the stimulus bill represented Republican principles, much less conservative ones, will remain a mystery. Dan Riehl has uncovered some information that former GOP Congressman Tom Reynolds may have played a large role in choosing Scozzafava, but that only muddies the waters even further. Didn't those numbskulls at the RNC and the NRCC even bother to check this woman's credentials before giving her stacks of cash donated by good conservatives?

It may be understandable that they would choose a pro-choice woman to run in New York state, although the man the special election is replacing who served eight terms representing that district, John McHugh, was pro-life down the line. But pro-gay marriage? Where did that come from? And it should go without saying that Scozzafava's support for the stimulus bill would have made her a pariah in the House Republican caucus since no other GOP congressman supported it.

All of this was known to the national party before they shepherded her choice through the selection process (rammed it through might be a better way to describe what happened). Also known to the GOP elites was the wave of discontent building beyond the beltway via the tea parties and the spectacular success of Glenn Beck, who has ridden the wave to fame and fortune.

And yet, still believing they were in total control, they proceeded as if the protests at health care town halls, the 9/12 phenomenon, and the tremendous grassroots energy those events unleashed didn't matter. Or perhaps they believed they would be able to co-opt and use all that enthusiasm for their own purposes so they could continue with business as usual. Whatever they were thinking, they blindly allowed an old crony (Reynolds used to run the NRCC), to have his way in choosing a candidate that even Nelson Rockefeller might have had to swallow hard to support.

Two weeks ago, things were pretty much going according to plan. Scozzafava was ahead of her Democratic rival Bill Owens. Hoffman, forced to run on the Conservative Party line, was trailing badly in third place. But things had been happening beneath the surface for weeks prior to this point, as online activists had been raising awareness of Hoffman and touting him as a grand alternative to the liberal Scozzafava.

David Keene of the American Conservative Union sponsored a blogger conference call on October 14 with Hoffman that raised his profile even more, and conservative activists began to get interested. Then on October 22, Sarah Palin posted an endorsement of Hoffman on her Facebook page and the floodgates opened. The surge for the candidate was already underway, but the Palin nod seemed to give his effort a rocket-powered boost. The Hoffman campaign raised $116,000 that day alone on the internet.

Scozzafava didn't help her cause much when she called the police on a Weekly Standard reporter for asking tough questions and clownishly appeared in front of Hoffman headquarters, where she held a press conference while an array of "Hoffman for Congress" signs filled the background.

With Scozzafava suspending her campaign, the National GOP is dutifully -- and not a little sheepishly -- lining up behind Hoffman. Newt Gingrich, who accused Hoffman supporters of unwittingly contributing to the re-election of Barack Obama, may have destroyed any hope of capturing the GOP nomination in 2012 with his churlish comments about conservatives who were rebelling against the establishment.

And while Gingrich comes out of the fray with egg on his face, Sarah Palin emerges once again as a savvy leader who recognized the opportunity to ride the populist wave and make a sizable impact with her timely endorsement. Other potential 2012 presidential candidates hesitated, either failing to grasp the opportunity or not recognizing it. Palin's boldness in sensing the mood of national conservatives and bucking the establishment only adds to the perception that no matter what the polls say about how the American people see the former Alaska governor, she will be a force in national politics in 2012 and beyond.

There seems to be no pause in Hoffman's momentum, which may bode well for the  election. The question that will be answered on Tuesday is where Scozzafava's supporters will end up? Regular Republicans who vote the party line may very well switch to Hoffman. Others may stay home. Still others will break to the Democrat Owens. The logical conclusion is that Hoffman will benefit far more from Scozzafava dropping out than Owens and likely win.

The latest poll has the two remaining candidates in a statistical tie. But the "X" factor may very well be the enthusiasm generated by Hoffman's candidacy among conservatives. This could make the difference in a low turnout election.

Could the magic being performed in NY-23 be sprinkled like fairy dust across the country? Could other conservatives achieve success in their campaigns? Nothing is out of the question, but history and practical politics makes it a longshot.

The unique situation in NY-23 does not lend itself as a template for victory in other districts around the country. The arcane and complicated New York party system, the stupidity of the national GOP, the hand-picked liberal candidate of the establishment, and a wave of resentment against a tone-deaf national party may mean a successful challenge in NY-23, but the circumstances will be different in each district. Most of those elements will not be present in other races and thoughts of  a mass housecleaning of the GOP will almost certainly fall short of fruition.

But conservatives shouldn't be discouraged. They have done more than send a message to the party establishment, even if Doug Hoffman doesn't win. They have well and truly rocked the boat, and it is unlikely that the GOP elites will forget it.