At the beginning of the summer, most observers expected Republicans to win all three of the big elections on Nov. 3. Two weeks out, it suddenly looks very possible that Republicans will win only one: the Virginia governor's race. The other two will be lost—not to superior Democratic organizing and messaging, but to the GOP's own divisions.
By all rights, the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District should be a Republican cakewalk. Stretching across the hunting and fishing towns along the Great Lakes and Canadian border, the district contains Fort Drum, base of the 10th Mountain division, and re-elected its Republican congressman in the disaster years of 2006 and 2008 by margins of 60-plus percent.
Yet polls show the Republican candidate in serious trouble. State Republican Party leaders prevented an open primary race and instead engineered the nomination of one of their own, moderate, pro-choice Assemblywoman Deirdre Scozzafava.
Angry conservatives in the 23rd rebelled, rallying to the third-party candidacy of local accountant Doug Hoffman. Hoffman and Scozzafava are splitting the Republican vote between them, allowing Democrat Bill Owen to emerge as the front-runner.
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.
I've written elsewhere about the fascinating parallels and contrasts between the New Jersey and New York races.
Here I want to look forward.
What lessons will Republicans draw? You might think that the impending defeats in New York and New Jersey would drive home the need to broaden the Republican coalition. A candidate like Hoffman would have been the better candidate for New York's 23rd CD; a candidate like Daggett the better candidate for suburban New Jersey. Republicans have to find ways to accommodate both types of candidates and both kinds of constituencies.
But the risk is that the party will draw a very different conclusion. From the New York experience, Republicans will be tempted to draw the lesson: Always nominate the more conservative candidate. From New Jersey: We need to drive pro-environmental fiscal moderates out of our party and into the Democratic Party where they belong!
And if the Republicans pick up an Arkansas Senate seat and a dozen blue-dog Democratic House seats in 2010, you can see this "tea party" mentality taking strong hold of the GOP in the run-up to 2012.
But a political formula that encourages Republicans to write off the suburbs, the Northeast, and California is not a formula for a national majority. It's a formula for a more coherent, better mobilized, but perpetually minority party.
It's always painful to lose. But defeats can be useful if they lead to wisdom. In this November's races, however, the risk is real that Republicans will lose much—and learn nothing.