Tuesday, November 3, 2009

On Bill Owens' victory in NY's 23rd

Here's what Owens' victory doesn't mean. It's not a sign of major national affirmation of Obama's agenda or foreshadowing of Democratic victories in 2010. Yes, it's pretty fascinating that this area will be represented by a Democrat in the House for the first time since the 1800s, but that has a lot to do with the unusual circumstances surrounding the race, like, say, the fact that the Republican dropped out last week and urged support for the Democrat.

So what does it mean? The real subject of interest for me has been the struggle for the Republican Party to chart out its future. As Jonathan Bernstein pointed out in the comment in my previous post on the subject, there are lots of dimensions of this struggle: pros vs. ideologues, locals vs. nationals, conservatives vs. moderates, media figures vs. party insiders, etc. But in general, the coalition of opinion leaders who were initially resistant to moderate Republican nominee Dede Scozzofava -- including Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, and a number of Tea Party spokespeople -- needed to do two things to prove that they were the future of the party. They needed to push the moderate out of the race (check) and still get their chosen candidate, Doug Hoffman, elected (whoops). It was a somewhat risky strategy in that it sent a message that moderate politicians had no place in the party, but if they could win elections and remain ideologically pure, that's an ideal position for the conservative activists.

So now what they've done is proven the importance of ideological positioning -- if you nominate too extreme a candidate, you lose the election. So the folks in the Republican Party who sabotaged Scozzofava and rallied around Hoffman now look silly and more than a tad disloyal. They cost their party a seat in Congress.

Now, depending on the individual and the agenda, this may be a small price. Palin, for example, has endeared herself to conservative activists through her outspoken advocacy for Hoffman in this race, and that may serve her well as she seeks the Republican presidential nomination. Bachmann has elevated her profile. Rush reaffirmed his status as a GOP kingmaker (or breaker). And it's not like one seat in the House matters all that much right now.

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