Republicans are – rightly – crowing this morning about the GOP’s victories in the New Jersey Governor’s race and a battery of races in Virginia from the Governorship on down and what they say about the turn in the national mood, if not in a pro-Republican direction then at least in a direction that’s sufficiently hostile to the Democrats that voters in states won by Obama and dominated by the Democrats in the last few years are willing to give individual Republicans another chance.
But the key word there, even in an across-the-board sweep like happened in Virginia, is individual. There remains an ongoing battle on the Right over how Republicans choose which candidates to support – who voters and the national party organs should back in primaries, when and whether to support third party candidacies, etc. It’s a battle intensified by Doug Hoffman’s loss in the NY-23 race after the NRCC-backed candidate, Dede Scoazzafava, ended up swinging the race to the Democrats when she endorsed Bill Owens. But in making sense of such debates, this is a point that cannot be stressed enough: no matter how favorable or unfavorable the overall national climate may be, no matter what ideological compass you want the party to follow, you can’t ever overlook the importance of the individual candidates and the conditions they run in. I said it in 2008 with regard to presidential campaigns, and it’s true as well of races for Governor, Senate or House: ideas don’t run for president, people do.
This point is overlooked by naysayers arguing that this or that position on a particular race is hypocritical or compels a similar result in other races – e.g., if you support the challenger you must always support the challenger; if you support the moderate, you must always support the moderate, etc. Hugh Hewitt eviscerated David Frum in a hugely entertaining segment last week over a column making a similar argument; I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but this excerpt from the Frum column is a sterling example of the kind of blinkered thinking I’m talking about:
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt this week offered a stern condemnation of this fratricide on his popular program, calling the third-party candidate:
“… a wrecker, a selfish ‘look at me’ poser … It takes an outsized ego to look at poll after poll that puts you behind not one but two candidates by more than 10 points and still declare yourself in the hunt.
“Whoops! Sorry, rewind. Fzzzzwwwwvvvvwwwzzzp. That was an editing error. Hugh Hewitt was not blasting Doug Hoffman, the third-party candidate in New York. In fact, Hoffman is the darling of talk radio and Fox News, which have helped to spread Hoffman Fever for the past few weeks.
“No, Hewitt was attacking the third-party candidate in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, an independent named Chris Daggett who has drawn votes from the official Republican standard-bearer, Chris Christie.
“From the point of view of most Republican commenters online and on the air, party loyalty is a highly variable principle. As they see it, third-party races by liberal Republicans who want to combine environmental protection with fiscal responsibility are selfish indulgences. But third-party races by conservative Republicans who want to combine pro-life appeals with their economic message? Those are completely different. Those are heroic acts of principle.”
This is idiotic. I’ll get to the specific races below, but how can a guy like Frum write this and not notice that Doug Hoffman had a serious chance to win his race – as it turned out, he ran Scozzafava out of the race, drew 45% of the vote and lost a narrow defeat after Scozzafava endorsed his opponent – while Daggett regularly polled below 15% of the vote – often in single digits – and ended up drawing just 6% of the vote in the general election?
Let me illustrate, by discussing several examples from the 2009 and 2010 races, how a principled, pragmatic conservative approach can lead to supporting a variety of different candidates.
The hottest debate for now is over the special election in NY’s 23d Congressional District, long held by moderate Republican John McHugh until he stepped down to accept a position in the Obama Administration. The GOP, without a primary, selected as its candidate state assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, but Doug Hoffman challenged her on the Conservative line and ended up running her out of the race before losing narrowly himself. The NRCC spent almost a million dollars backing Scozzafava, who was also backed by Newt Gingrich and other establishment figures, but RedState and other conservative commentators and blogs, including national figures like Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, joined the revolt and lined up behind Hoffman.
In the abstract, a moderate Republican may well have been the better fit for NY-23. But there were a number of practical reasons why Scozzafava was a bridge too far for conservatives (Jay Cost summarizes the broader problems with her selection here). She had longstanding ties to ACORN and its cat’s paw, the Working Families Party of New York. Her husband was a ranking official in a left-leaning union. She wasn’t just a moderate but a liberal on economic and social issues. She turned out to be a thunderingly incompetent candidate. She had no party loyalty to offset her ideological leanings – she refused to promise to remain a Republican in office, held talks about switching parties in the state legislature, and ended up endorsing the Democrat. And conservatives had never been given a voice in the nominating process, so a third party challenge was the only way to revolt against the party establishment’s candidate.
And perhaps worst of all, and a desperately under-covered aspect of this special election as well as the one to fill Kirsten Gillibrand’s seat in New York’s 20th District in April, Scozzafava has spent more than a decade in New York’s State Assembly. ACORN ties are bad enough, but the most radioactive association possible right now in the State of New York is with the notoriously corrupt, dysfunctional state legislature. Yet the GOP ran the State Assembly Minority Leader, Jim Tedisco (a 23-year veteran of the Assembly), for Gillibrand’s seat, and now Scozzafava. Unsurprisingly, in a climate of pervasive anti-Albany sentiment, both went down to defeat in otherwise winnable races. The nominations of Tedisco and Scozzafava represent a catastrophic failure to understand local sentiment. Conservatives who supported Hoffman, while recognizing that he, too, was an imperfect candidate, saw that at least as a political outsider, he’d have the credibility to speak to the populist revolt against the unholy alliance of Big Federal Government, Big State Government, Big Labor, and Big Business against the ordinary taxpayer.
In New Jersey, by contrast to NY-23, most of us on the Right fell in behind the more moderate candidate, Chris Christie, against both a primary challenge by Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan and a third-party challenge, mostly from the Right, by Chris Daggett. Again, we would have liked a strongly conservative candidate, but balanced that against a left-leaning electorate that might be more open to a moderate. But in this race, things were different.
First, Christie’s no liberal, just a guy who shied away from taking conservative stances – or, for that matter, detailing very much of his platform at all (he’ll come to office with a strong mandate to fight corruption and resist tax hikes, but anything else he wants to do, he’ll need to sell the voters on from scratch). Second, unlike Hoffman, Daggett jumped into a race where there had already been a full and fair opportunity for a reasonably well-funded and credible primary challenger (Lonegan) to offer the voters a choice, making the selection of Christie inherently more legitimate and a third-party run more obviously sour grapes designed to split the vote (as it turned out, the Democrats ended up doing robocalls for Daggett). Third, while a political novice, Christie’s an impressive guy, a good debater with a regular-Joe demeanor and a hard-won statewide reputation for prosecuting corruption as US Attorney. And fourth, Christie comes to office without any negative baggage in the form of past associations with the activist Left or past positions defending outrageous examples of overspending and overreaching by the federal government.
With the Right mostly united behind him, Christie was able to reach enough independents and moderates to win the race.
The primary races were less divisive in Virginia this year, but it’s worth mentioning here: Virginia’s been increasingly dominated by the Democrats, who won the state in the presidential election in 2008, won Senate races in 2006 & 2008, and won the Governor’s races in 2001 & 2005. More than a few voices counselled for moderation in statewide races in Virginia, but the GOP instead picked a slate of unapologetic, bold-colors conservatives (Bob McDonnell for Governor, Bill Bolling for Lt. Governor, and Ken Cuccinelli for Attorney General), each of whom won by nearly a 20-point margin. And local dynamics were a significant factor: the state GOP had lost credibility with the voters for its tax-hiking, big-spending ways, so running moderates would only have underlined the extent to which the party hadn’t learned its lessons.
In a normal electorate, Republicans would regard Mike Bloomberg as the sort of liberal barely-a-RINO deserving of a primary challenge – besides his left-leaning views on a number of issues, he literally only joins the party for election years, and offers zero support to the party city-wide. Plus, a lot of voters didn’t like his decision to amend the city charter to run for a third term. But not only due to his vast wealth did he avoid a serious primary challenge: New York is an overwhelmingly Democratic city, so running a conservative challenger (even a conservative-on-some-issues candidate like Rudy Giuliani) is a tough sell absent an enormous crisis, plus Bloomberg’s basic managerial competence and the fear of what a liberal Democrat would do on the two biggest issues in City politics (crime and taxes) is enough to convince most NYC conservatives, like me, to fall in (however grudgingly) behind Bloomberg.
This one I have discussed before at length: the GOP establishment has thrown its weight behind moderate Florida Governor Charlie Crist against conservative former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio in the race to succeed Senator Mel Martinez. There are all kinds of reasons to prefer Rubio: Florida’s been welcoming territory for conservatives for the past decade; Rubio’s both young and experienced (by Senate candidate standards) and a much better speaker than Crist; a Rubio nomination would be a symbol of inclusiveness given his Cuban heritage, an important factor given Florida’s demographics; and while Crist’s overall profile is moderate, he’s made the crucial error of over-associating himself with the Big-everything Obama agenda, including his support for the bloated stimulus bill. On top of that, because Crist is the sitting Governor and hasn’t been willing to criticize the sitting president’s economic agenda, as a matter of campaign strategy he has no Plan B to fall back on if Floridians are unhappy with the state of the state’s economy. Unsurprisingly, Crist’s approval rating has been eroding, leaving Rubio already the stronger candidate in general election matchups against the likely Democratic opponent. And that opponent, Kendrick Meek, is the final piece of the puzzle: he, like other Democrats mentioned as possible challengers, will run not as a moderate but as an arch-liberal, making it much easier for the GOP to run a conservative and still appeal to voters in the political middle.
The California Senate race to unseat Barbara Boxer is a much tougher call than the Rubio-Crist race. There are a number of reasons why I initially expected to back former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina over California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore. First, California’s a liberal state, and Boxer’s an incumbent; despite Boxer’s generally weak poll numbers (she frequently gets less than half of all voters interested in re-electing her, a danger zone for incumbents), either candidate will have a brutally tough road ahead to actually win the race, but the more moderate Fiorina would seem the more natural fit. Second, California and Boxer are especially obsessed with abortion; if I recall correctly, no pro-lifer has won a statewide election in two decades. Third, Fiorina is a woman, a political outsider, a former media darling at HP and much more well-known than DeVore.
But along the way, I ended up siding with a number of other RedStaters in endorsing DeVore. Why? The biggest factor is that I’m just not convinced that Fiorina is a strong candidate – despite the inital good press she was fired for poor performance at HP, and she was sacked by the McCain campaign for her blundering as a spokeswoman. The abortion issue is less of a divide than you might believe; while pro-lifers seem suspicious of her on the issue, Fiorina describes herself as pro-life, so she’ll face the same barrage from Boxer on the issue as DeVore. DeVore, by contrast, seems like an energetic candidate who’s spent a lot more time in the trenches over the past year.
The temper of the times matters. An entrenched incumbent like Boxer can be beaten in a state that normally favors her only if there’s a populist wave to the Right – and the candidate better positioned to ride that wave is Devore, with his ear attuned to the Tea Party movement, not Fiorina, the failed CEO with the golden parachute.
The state of the state party matters too. The California GOP has deep divisions between its persecution-complex-carrying moderate wing and its disaffected conservative activist base. Even if the Senate race is a loss, the best way to fire up the activists – especially against a candidate as famously arch-liberal, nasty, arrogant and dim-witted as Boxer – so as to have them out to vote in the governor’s race and down-ticket races for House seats and the state legislature is to run a candidate who will take the fight to Boxer root and branch, and that factor too favors DeVore. And as discussed below, I expect the more moderate Meg Whitman to win the nomination for Governor and will probably support Whitman. A tag-team of Whitman and DeVore on the ballot is a balanced ticket that shows both wings of the party that they are valued by the state party, and will help defuse momentum for any sort of third-party challenge being mounted by either wing.
To all appearances, the California Governor’s race is a replay of the Senate race: a moderate, female business executive (Meg Whitman) against a male conservative elected official (State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner). And it’s true: Whitman’s had some awful rookie mistakes (she’s spoken glowingly about Van Jones and her first major political donation, made with warm words, was to Boxer), while Poizner, also a successful business executive in his own right, seems an impressive guy.
But this isn’t the Senate race. Whitman was a massively successful businesswoman as the founder and CEO of eBay, and by all accounts is a fiercely disciplined woman. The Governor’s race is for an open seat, with Arnold Schwarzenegger term-limited, so picking a candidate with a good chance to win is paramount. The absence of Boxer from the race will enable Whitman to run an inherently less polarizing campaign. And, as I said, running one moderate and one conservative statewide will best unify a party that notoriously lacks unity.
I could go on. There will undoubtedly be decisions for conservatives to make in Senate races in states like Illinois and Delaware, for example, that will likely shake out in favor of more moderate candidates; there will be others where it will make more sense to go with a more conservative, more populist candidate. But you get my point: the assessment of which candidate to back in a conservative-vs-moderate race is not one to make on automatic pilot. Even if you prefer to always back the conservative, the practical considerations of each race and each set of candidates needs to be evaluated. This is such an obvious point that it shouldn’t need to be emphasized, but it does.