Coming civil war in the GOP

Full results are not in, but it looks right now like Democrat Bill Owens will win NY-23, tarnishing would should have been a solid night for the GOP. Comfortable wins in the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia seemed likely to serve as appetizers for the real conservative triumph – a victory of Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman.

The purging of Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava from the race by national conservative activists has been well-covered. Fox News breathlessly insisted that NY-23, being the only real national race tonight (CA-10 is up for grabs too, but has received very little attention), would surely send a message to Obama and the Democrats in Congress. Hoffman made great hay out of the national implications of his campaign – his was a race not for parochial issues in the St. Lawrence Valley, but a blow for conservatives, Tea Party Patriots and other “lovers of freedom” against the socialists in Washington. Considering the historic ties of the region to the GOP – most of the counties in NY-23 have not sent a Democratic rep to Washington since 1852 – it seemed foreordained that Dede’s surrender would yield a huge victory for Hoffman and the conservatives. PPP came out with an unweighted poll showing the impending Conservative landslide in the North Country. Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin and all the bigwigs in the conservative movement converged on this rural outpost of Yankee Republicanism in the last few weeks. And the Democrat, Bill Owens, was a relative conservative – though he is a supporter of the public option on health care. In other words, the college town liberals of NY-23 (and there are many in Canton, Oswego, Plattsburgh and Potsdam) would surely feel demoralized.

The results of the night, if they hold, yield a very different narrative than what the Beck crowd had anticipated. Instead of a great anti-Obama conservative resurgence, Owens’ victory will likely embolden other Republican moderates to stand up to the tea party wing. It did not go unnoticed in the North Country that the vast majority of the money and support for Hoffman came from out of the state. Southern-style conservatism is despised in Upstate New York (though homegrown conservatism has a deep tradition). Did anybody really think Fred Thompson would curry appeal in Oswego, New York? I lived in Upstate NY for a few years. While many are proud “hicks”, they insist that they are not “like THOSE hicks down South.” I heard the same thing in rural Michigan.

Now moderate Republicans like Charlie Crist of Florida will have some ammunition in the fight against the militants trying to take the full reigns of the GOP. In a night when the balloons and confetti were reserved for the Republicans, it was the Democrats picking up a House seat not held by them for 157 years.

And so there will be a continued civil war in the GOP. How ardently should the Republicans oppose the Obama agenda? Is the “party of no” strategy working for them? Are they reaping the benefits of a clear and unambiguous difference between Obama-Pelosi-Reid Democratic policies and the conservative alternative? Or does the electorate still actually support the Democratic agenda – at least enough to hand over a former GOP stronghold to the Democratic Party?

The Democrats have lots of work ahead too, obviously. The disastrous Deeds campaign, and deeply unpopular Corzine governorship (almost certainly to be followed up by an equally unpopular Christie governorship), dampened Democratic base turnout. Young voters and African Americans did not feel inspired to support the Dems in those states. If they feel that way in November 2010 then the consequences will be grave for the Democrats – regardless of the intraparty fighting among the elephants.

Most interesting is the successful tack of the McDonnell campaign. I don’t know if McDonnell once mentioned Obama. His entire campaign was based on pragmatic solutions and executive competence. In other words, he ran as a Republican Mark Warner – despite his conservative past. When confronted with his Christianist Master’s Thesis, he shrugged and said his views had changed since then. Deeds was unable to capitalize and McDonnell – like Obama after Reverend Wright – managed to fend off culture war issues and return to the “real issues” of the campaign. There is a limit to culture war politics on both sides.

The victor tonight, ironically enough, may be the moderates of both parties. Owens is a moderate – socially conservative but economically liberal (like his district). Christie was the moderate in the NJ GOP primary and will not likely push the state to the right in any appreciable way. McDonnell is a conservative, but he campaigned as a pragmatic moderate against a moderate Democrat casting himself as a cultural liberal.

Will the GOP see it that way? Unlikely. The civil war will continue.

Author: AARON ASTOR