On a night when conservatives expected a landmark victory in New York’s 23rd congressional district, the movement’s anointed candidate, Doug Hoffman, instead went down in a startling defeat to Democrat Bill Owens. The official Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, had dropped out days before and thrown her support to Owens after the conservative movement backed Hoffman in a campaign to destroy her, attacking her as a closet socialist with a cynical, hidden agenda—the same terms they have used to demonize President Barack Obama.
Hoffman’s rejection by rank-and-file voters in a solidly Republican district dampened the conservatives’ mood on an otherwise upbeat night and raised serious questions about the movement’s attempt to purge moderates from party ranks. Now, many of Hoffman’s right-wing cheerleaders are struggling to explain their dubious gambit, while others fear repercussions for their zealotry.
“Watch [Owens’ victory] be spun as a defeat for Sarah Palin and the hateful extreme right-wing of the Republican party,” National Review online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez warned on the conservative magazine’s blog. She added: “(Hi! See George Pataki standing next to me?),” referring to the moderate Republican former New York governor and failed presidential candidate who basked in publicity after endorsing Hoffman.
With endorsements from the National Rifle Association, the National Republican Congressional Committee and Republican Party elders Newt Gingrich and New York Rep. Peter King, Scozzafava was assured an easy victory. Then Hoffman declared his candidacy on the Conservative Party line. Hoffman was a lawyer and Tea Party activist who did not live in the district and, according to the local Watertown Daily-Times, “showed no grasp of the bread-and-butter issues pertinent to district residents.” Offered as his only selling point: ideological purity.
Hoffman instantly became the point man for the national conservative movement, dedicating himself to fulfilling the right’s dream of a complete purge of moderate elements in the GOP. Campaigning in a local constituency of mostly Republican regulars, Hoffman behaved as though he were running in a presidential primary. He slammed Scozzafava for supporting abortion rights and gay marriage, substituting the hot button issues that had electrified the national Tea Party movement rather than the bread and butter concerns of the working class district he campaigned to represent.
Hoffman’s appeals to cultural resentment attracted zealous support from a who’s who of far-right icons, from Fred Thompson to Glenn Beck, from Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin. The former Republican vice presidential nominee recorded a robocall for him a week before Election Day. Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor of Minnesota, sought to establish his conservative credentials in advance of an expected 2012 presidential run by endorsing Hoffman. The National Organization for Marriage, an anti-gay religious right group, commissioned a poll supposedly proving Scozzafava’s support for gay marriage had doomed her (the sample size was only 318 likely voters). Meanwhile, cash poured into Hoffman’s coffers through conservativeoutfits from the Club For Growth to the American Conservative Union.
As Hoffman surged in the polls, right-wing bloggers worked themselves into an ecstatic lather. Jonah Goldberg wrote in the National Review that Hoffman’s victory, together with gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia, would prove that those who urged restoring the big tent philosophy of the GOP were “incandescently wrong.”
By imposing themselves on a parochial-minded electorate, however, the outside conservative who seemed to have lifted Hoffman’s chances had in fact set the stage for his demise. When the Watertown Daily-Times endorsed Owens, its editors predicted that “Northern New York will suffer” if Hoffman fulfilled his anti-government campaign promises. Thus the right-wing teabaggers pouring into New York’s 23rd were perceived as carpetbaggers.
When Scozzafava was forced to quit the race and cast her support to Owens after possible lobbying by Democratic congressional leaders, the right’s rhetoric took on an increasingly vitriolic tone. The National Review’s Jim Geraghty calledScozzafava “the most amoral, underhanded, unprincipled and craven creature to crawl out of New York state politics since…well, Eliot Spitzer 18 months ago.” Then, at a Hoffman rally the night before election night, country singer John Rich mocked Scozzafava in a tirade laced with sexist overtones, calling her “Dede Schizophrenic” and remarking, “There was a fox in the hen house, but you know what? We smoked that fox out.”
While the female vote is impossible to quantify so soon after the election, the personal attacks by a mostly male gang of assailants led by Rush Limbaugh on Scozzafava, one of the most accomplished female Republican legislators in New York political history, may have turned women solidly against Hoffman. The five percent protest vote that Scozzafava garnered, even though she dropped out, will almost certainly contain signs of a female backlash.
In the wake of defeat, some of Hoffman’s enthusiastic backers attempted to spin his loss as a heroic moral victory. They included Erick Erickson, a popular blogger at the heavily trafficked right-wing blog, RedState.com. “This is a huge win for conservatives,” Erickson declared. “…we did exactly what we set out to do – crush the establishment backed GOP candidate.”
Besides Erickson, only Democrats seemed to be celebrating the news. “A Democrat close to the administration could only say: ‘Holy f—ing sh–!’ over and over when I called for comment [about Owens’ victory],” reported Elizabeth Benjamin of the New York Daily News.
With their great crusade in New York’s 23rd extinguished, conservatives have shifted their focus to the good news in New Jersey and Virginia, where, following historical trends, Republican gubernatorial candidates trounced their Democratic rivals. Hoffman, once the conservative movement’s white knight, has been tossed down the Orwellian memory hole.
But the right-wing’s impulse purge has not ended—there are still moderate Republicans to be crushed. Florida Governor Charlie Crist may be next on the hit list. As 2010 approaches, the movement is seeking its next “great win.”