Now that I am back from Greece, I have been trying to catch up on the electoral news for tomorrow’s off-year and special elections. As far as most political bloggers seem to be concerned, the gubernatorial races have faded into the background and the genuinely less significant special House election in New York has been consuming everyone’s attention. This seems to be true regardless of the political views of the blogger. Hoffman’s insurgency seems to have become the focal point of tomorrow’s voting, which is hard for me to explain.
NY-23 is similar in some respects to NY-20, which earlier this year elected the Democrat Murphy over Tedisco in the special election there to replace now-Sen. Gillibrand, in that NY-23 has been a solid Republican district for a long time that voted for Obama in 2008. It makes sense that more conservative candidates would be winning significant support in these districts, and it also makes sense that candidates taking advantage of public frustration with the administration would be able to tap into feelings of disappointment among voters who took a chance on Obama and now somehow claim to be surprised by what he has been doing. In other words, a conservative candidate ought not to have much difficulty rallying support in an off-year special election in a district that has routinely sent Republicans to Congress. Low turnout elections ought to benefit candidates who represent mobilized, discontented voters, and that seems to describe Hoffman’s backers very well.
That should mean that a Hoffman victory, which is still by no means assured, would not be a great surprise and would not mean much beyond the confines of northern New York. Indeed, one wonders if Hoffman’s standing in the polls would be all that newsworthy if he were not a Conservative Party insurgent fighting against the local GOP leadership. My guess is that NY-23’s location in the Northeast will give many people on the right the wrong impression that Hoffman’s chance at success proves that movement activist-style conservatism can win or at least compete in the Northeast generally, but northern New York is not like most of the rest of the region. Travis Childers’ election in a special election last year was not and never would have been proof of the viability of progressive politics in the Deep South. The significance of a Hoffman victory would be similarly limited.
Something I don’t understand about the national GOP’s elevation of the NY-23 race to such a high profile is why they think nationalizing House races favors them. Nationally, the GOP remains toxic and its party ID continues to be very low. Nationalizing the race gains the GOP nothing in a traditionally supportive district, but it potentially saddles their preferred candidate with all of their baggage from the past several years. It is also mimicking the absolutely failed Republican tactics of almost every special election of the last three years. With depressing regularity, GOP attack ads have warned voters against such-and-such a candidate siding with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, when most people outside of Washington don’t know and couldn’t care who these people are. The leading role Palin has had in backing Hoffman, which has also triggered something of a stampede of other national Republicans to try to match her bid for conservative activist support, has to be something of a dream come true for Chris Van Hollen and the DCCC considering her genuinely poor ratings with non-Republicans.
The GOP seems to be making what ought to be an easy win into a national Phyrrhic victory in which the relative strength of conservative activists inside the party becomes vastly exaggerated and identifies the flailing, failing party even more closely with its conservative members. This will make it very difficult for conservative activists to disassociate themselves from the outcome of the midterms next year. What I find strange in the fixation on NY-23 is that the off-year gubernatorial elections probably serve as a much better indicator of large-scale movements in public opinion. Larger, more diverse electorates in large states are involved in Virginia and New Jersey. If things go as I expect them to with a Republican pick-up in Virginia and a Democratic hold in New Jersey, the message will be rather muddled. It will mean that Virginia will have chosen a Northern Virginia moderate who successfully ran away from his earlier social conservatism while New Jersey re-elected an incumbent who was thought to be highly vulnerable and discredited by corruption. Those results could be explained by pointing to the nature of the electorates in both states, but this does not lend itself to a triumphant narrative of Republican resurgence fueled by true believers. The point here is not to write off conservative insurgents or reject protest candidacies provoked by the failures and mistakes of state and local party leaders. These are appropriate and sometimes necessary responses to elected and party officials’ blunders. What also matters is being willing to acknowledge that the political landscape is not necessary what we wish it is or think it ought to be. Hoffmania and its attendant privileging of ideology over actual local interests suggest that a great many conservatives cannot and will not acknowledge this.