Once the heavy favorite to win NY-23’s special election, Dede Scozzafava will not be the district’s next representative. Plagued by the collapse of her poll numbers, by a lack of funds and by her inability to respond to hard-hitting ads attacking her, the Republican nominee took the stunning move of suspending her campaigns just 3 days before Election Day!
For weeks, conservative activists insisted they would not mind if Owens won; as long as they managed to prevent Scozzafava from winning, they would have succeeded in sending a message to the GOP establishment. As such, they got just what they wanted: No matter what happens on Tuesday, Scozzafava’s demise will be remembered as an unlikely conservative triumph, embolden the hard-right and put establishment-backed candidates - from Charlie Crist to Kelly Ayotte - on notice.
But in her last act as a candidate, Scozzafava chose to help her tormentors score an outright victory. In a two-way race, it’s tough to see Bill Owens’s path for victory - and this for a very simple reason: Most voters who had remained faithful to Scozzafava were Republicans rather than independents. The latest Research 2000 and Siena polls (both of which have Hoffman trailing Owens by just 1%) show 34% and 29% of Republicans opting for Scozzafava compared to only 11% and 15% of independents.
As such, when wondering where Scozzafava’s voters will go, we are talking first and foremost about Republican voters, a group that gave Barack Obama a 25% approval rating in the Research 2000 poll. Those voters are more likely to move to Hoffman’s camp than to cross over to the Democratic Party.
Democrats are left hoping that Scozzafava’s voters will be repulsed by Hoffman’s conservatism and run to Owens; but that hope is hard to reconcile with the simple fact that Hoffman has been dominating both of his rivals among independents - i.e. a group of moderate voters that gave Barack Obama a positive approval rating in the Research 2000 poll. (Hoffman received 47% in Research 2000 and 40% in Siena.)
Scozzafava’s might be ideologically to Hoffman’s left, but that was not reflected in their respective electoral coalitions. That means we cannot treat the former’s voters are centrists who will split equally between the two remaining contenders. Now that he is both a third-party candidate and de facto GOP nominee, Hoffman should win a large majority of Republican voters while also strengthening his hold among independents.
Owens’s saving grace could be the fact that Scozzafava’s name will still appear on the ballot. Given how late she announced her decision, that many voters have seen her ads and received her mailers, I would be surprised if she receives less than 10% of the vote. Since she will appear as the GOP nominee, I would expect many of those who stick by her to be Republican voters, which could be a major obstacle for Hoffman.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, conservatives will be embolden
Does that mean Republicans should rejoice? Since Scozzafava’s withdrawal, most of the GOP establishment - including the RNC and NRCC - have jumped on the Hoffman bandwagon while those who were on it from the start, like Sarah Palin, are celebrating their victory. Newt Gingrich is a rare holdout refusing to walk back his endorsement for Scozzafava. He told the New York Times:
This makes life more complicated from the standpoint of this: If we get into a cycle where every time one side loses, they run a third-party candidate, we’ll make Pelosi speaker for life and guarantee Obama’s re-election… I think we are going to get into a very difficult environment around the country if suddenly conservative leaders decide they are going to anoint people without regard to local primaries and local choices.
Gingrich’s characterization of the dispute is somewhat flawed. What conservatives have been upset about in many races is the lack of local choice: They blame national Republican leaders for anointing establishment candidates - not all of them moderates, for instance Charlie Crist, Kelly Ayotte, Jane Norton, Roy Blunt and Carly Fiorina. (Among major Senate candidates, only Rob Portman looks to have mostly escaped base discontentment.)
But Gingrich’s overall point remains a valid one, and you can be sure many Republicans are thinking the same thing. With a blueprint for victory, conservatives will be emboldened in their quest to beat back the candidates favored by establishment; the Club for Growth will point to NY-23 as its highest-profile triumph; and it will be much harder to accuse these forces of playing spoiler when Hoffman so dramatically vanquished Scozzafava.
This should first and foremost be a problem for the GOP insofar as primaries go: It’s hard to see how Sean Mahoney mounting as strong a Senate campaign as Kelly Ayotte. But the “extremists are taking over the party!” argument shouldn’t be taken too far: There were many dire warnings about Democrats setting themselves up to lose independents when Ned Lamont beat Joe Lieberman in the summer of 2006, and we know what happened just 3 months later.
What is so different in NY-23 is that conservatives explicitly said they couldn’t care less if the GOP lost - a major difference with Connecticut, where liberals were trying to win within the Democratic Party. While Lieberman ran as an independent to save his personal career, here conservatives formed a third-party bid to advance their ideological cause at the obvious risk of hurting the party to which they’re often affiliated.
While third-party candidates are rarely a factor, part of the reason is that so few attract media and donor attention. The post-Hoffman landscape could be very different, and at the moment we cannot rule out a movement to get conservative candidates to bypass the GOP’s nominating process all around the country.
Needless to say, the proliferation of 3-way races - Democrat, Republican, conservative - would be a nightmare for the GOP.
(Sure, NY-23’s intraparty fight might not help Democrats, but this special election’s occurred in special circumstances that will rarely be duplicated. First, it took place in an electoral vacuum, which means it monopolized conservative attention. Second, Scozzafava’s record was uncommonly easy to characterize as liberal; how many Republicans have cast a vote to legalize gay marriage? And third, her decision to withdraw is one few trailing candidates take.)
While the race is still competitive, the NRCC is now more likely than not to keep NY-23 - but you can bet some Republican officials would have rather lost the seat than defend it through such a nightmarish sequence, one that will leave a durable mark on the GOP.