District 23 in New York encompasses 11 counties in the most northern part of the state. Most of the district is further north than Toronto, Canada. It’s geographically large, about the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined. Much of it overlaps the beautiful and enormous Adirondack Park, the largest State or Federal park in the lower 48 states.
District 23’s land mass is approximately 1/3rd of New York State’s. Its population is only 1/29th. In a state where Barack Obama outperformed John McCain by 28 points, District 23 elected Republican Congressman John McHugh, now Obama’s Secretary of the Army. A Republican has represented the district since there was a Republican party. The last non-Republican elected to Congress was a member of the Whig Party. Of course, Obama’s choice of McHugh was not a cynical political choice made by Rahm Emmanuel, but one based on bipartisan merit alone. But cynical politics is not new. Losing this district was.
The Democratic victory was a disaster for the Republican Party. A small disaster — after all, it is only one district among 435 in the US– but a disaster never the less. It is also one where “lessons will be learned.” If those lessons are the wrong ones, then a small disaster will become a larger one. I already gave my pre-election opinion in Palin, the “Amiable Duncess”. I favored Hoffman. And while I still wish he won, I did not know what a bad candidate he was. That is not an excuse, just a statement of fact. The late Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, famously quipped that “all politics was local”. In fact, that was told to him by his father when he lost his very first election. He lost it because he spent all his campaigning in precincts other than his own. Had he won his own precinct he would have won the election. He learned then, that first and foremost, a politician must be attuned to the issues most close to his constituency. From there, a foundation can be built.
But Hoffman was utterly clueless about District 23 issues as was demonstrated in his absurd interview with the Watertown Daily Times . He also could barely string two sentences together coherently, thus giving credibility to the accusation he was a simple puppet of “outside” conservative interest groups.
The Conservative movement understandably was displeased with the choice of Dede Scozzafava. She had flirted with switching parties. She would fit in well with the Democratic Party as her unprincipled support of Owens proves. But some believe, incorrectly, that her candidacy lacked legitimacy. Or that she was chosen, as Karl Rove so dismissively said on “Hannity,” by “eleven guys in a Pizzeria.”
For a detailed account of the actual process, one can start here at the TCOT website . Each of the 11 counties polled their committeeman back in July. She won a plurality, but not a majority. Hoffman had virtually zero support among the entire district’s committeeman. After hearing him speak in public several times, it is not that surprising. Scozzafava had 45% of the committeeman vote and two other more “conservative” candidates split the remaining 55%.
The chairwoman of the largest county used her authority to switch one of the “Conservative” candidates’ votes to Scozzafava to break the deadlock. This is the so called backroom deal. Special elections are rare, but the process was perfectly normal. New York State has a Conservative Party and once elected a Senator from that ticket (William Buckley’s brother James in the early 1970s). Funded by several national Conservative groups and supported by well known names such as Palin, Pawlenty and Thompson, Hoffman became a candidate on the Conservative party ballot. He was running 10 points behind Democrat Owens in the polls with Scozzafava a distant 3rd. Former Senator Dick Armey of Texas was Hoffman’s handler, so it seemed. When it became clear that Scozzafava could not win, the GOP forced her out, and she pulled a “Specter.” The Hoffman supporters were feeling vindicated as polls (commissioned by them) showed Hoffman well ahead. But then he lost. There are dozens of “counter-factuals” being proposed as to why this is not really a loss. But it is. The “nationalization of a local election” experiment failed. Tip O’Neil’s father appears to have gotten it right.
What “lessons” were learned? From reading some of the triumphalist ravings of the Hoffman camp, one would think they actually won the election. They look as ridiculous as NY Jets coach Rex Ryan after a defeat, explaining to the rest of the NFL why it needs to be afraid of them. It is a joke. The Hoffman defeat shows that “after the fact third party-ism revolt” run by people outside districts does not work. They lost in a district which had been Republican since the 1800s. How is that good? There are always people who indulge in irritating triumphalist thinking, but that is after a victory, not defeat. This defeat is an utter humiliation for the Hoffman supporters in my view. They turned a once Whig district into a Democratic one. That takes ingenuity.
Some commentators have actually called this the equivalent of the 2010 primary and actually want the verbally and intellectually challenged Hoffman to be this district’s candidate next year. They must be kidding. “Earth to fellow Conservatives,” forget about District 23 before it morphs into Area 51. They did fine without you for 150 years. You lost. Go home. There are 434 other equally important elections less than 12 months away. Work hard for your candidates in your district and others. But don’t pretend you “won” anything or taught anyone a “lesson.” You didn’t. You simply lost.