Comparisons between NY-23 and NY-20 can be overdone, but what I found interesting in Hoffman’s loss last night in northern New York was the similarity of his campaign to that of Jim Tedisco in the special election earlier this year. Both were put in the national spotlight by GOP leaders who wanted to use the candidates as examples of Republican revival; both districts were flooded with national money and advertisements that ignored all those “parochial” issues and made the contests into referenda on the national Democratic agenda. Perhaps not coincidentally, both failed in historically very Republican districts. To the extent that the national Democratic agenda had anything to do with these elections, the national GOP’s gambit backfired when the Democratic candidates who had aligned themselves with important parts of the administration’s agenda prevailed in traditionally hostile territory.
We should not invest any one or two House races with that much significance, but it seems somewhat telling that given the chance to put another effectively Republican representative in Washington there were not enough voters in deepest upstate New York willing to do it. At the level of state government, however, large, albeit skewed, electorates opted for anti-incumbency. That suggests that the taint of the national GOP does not extend to state parties and their candidates, but candidates for federal office who are embraced by national Republican leaders continue to face significant resistance even in places that ought to be their strongholds.
Tedisco had some additional advantages that he managed to squander. He was the Republican nominee, and he was a much better-known local politician than the rookie candidate Hoffman, all of which gave him a large early lead over Scott Murphy. Tedisco blew his lead, and Hoffman scarcely had time to establish one, but the flaws that marred both campaigns were very similar. Even though Hoffman was not as much of an outsider as his opponents made him out to be, he did everything he could to make himself out to be a carbon-copy national Republican with no feel for local concerns and no obvious interest in the place he was supposed to be represented. Murphy was a recent transplant to the area with connections to the district thanks to his wife, but despite Tedisco’s efforts to paint Murphy as a newcomer who knew little about the district it was the tone-deaf national Republican push on behalf of Tedisco that made him, the known quantity and well-liked local, seem as if he did not understand the voters and their interests. Nationalizing both races not only imported all of the toxic baggage the national party had acquired during the Bush years, but it also made candidates who could genuinely claim to be full members of their communities and turned them into something more like movement activist zombies.
The reassuring story that movement conservatives have been telling themselves last night and this morning is that the local GOP establishment in the district was to blame for creating the conditions for defeat. It is true that the irregular nomination of Scozzafava created an absurd situation for the district’s Republican voters, but it seems to be a bad sign for Hoffmanites that a district that routinely gives 60-70% of its general election votes to the Republican candidate could not muster a simple majority of special election voters for Hoffman. As we kept hearing, and as the Virginia and New Jersey votes do show, the off-year voting was skewed towards angry, mobilized conservatives and right-leaning independents. A special House election in an off-year ought to have magnified the impact of such voters. In other words, the conditions were quite good for Hoffman. Movement conservatives might like to say now that Hoffman has failed that the odds were always very long and victory improbable, but this special election was almost tailor-made for an activist-backed, slogan-repeating, box-checking, party-line mimic of every national Republican and movement conservative obsession. (Incidentally, the importance of Hoffman’s opposition to card-check in the usual GOP talking points on NY-23 is a rather odd and possibly significant indication of how far removed from their voters national Republicans have become.) It didn’t work. Hoffmania did not catch on among the GOP’s natural constituents in what is normally a safe district, so how likely is it that this brand of conservative politics will catch on elsewhere?
One thing that seems crucial to emphasize is how much this was not a “revolt” or an explosion of anti-GOP establishment fervor. I want to be very precise here. Many voters in NY-23 revolted against their local party leadership by backing Hoffman, but the outpouring of support for Hoffman came from the very center of what remains of the national Republican establishment. Viewed locally, Hoffman was not the establishment candidate. However, he was the national GOP establishment’s candidate, which is why I do not regard his defeat as such a great loss. During the last election we saw how movement and party leaders respond to real, threatening insurgencies from the right, and it was opposite of the warm embrace given to Hoffman.
To the extent that last night signaled the amount of right-populist discontent in the country, the establishment support for Hoffman represented yet another episode of the national party attempting to feed off of populist enthusiasm to sustain its own decaying body and to co-opt (and then ignore) populist themes while having no intention of ever governing in the interests of their constituents should they regain power. The prominence of the pseudo-populist Palin in all of this was significant. Her presence served as a reminder of how often conservative voters are pandered to rhetorically and symbolically and how uninterested Republican leaders are in serving the interests of their constituents once elections are concluded. Hoffman’s failure may mean that rank-and-file Republican voters in once-safe districts are no longer going to be taken for granted, and it could mean that their votes will have to be earned with policy proposals that address their concrete interests. The national and Congressional party has no clue how to do this, and so they keep failing. Candidates at the state level seem to grasp this basic idea and have started having some success.
P.S. Perhaps it isn’t nice to kick them while they’re down, but it’s worth noting that Owens’ victory is another in the growing list of Democratic pick-ups at least partially engineered by the Club for Growth.