NY-23 and the blame game
By Ben Pershing
As top Republicans busily gloated Wednesday over the party's convincing victories in New Jersey and Virginia, there was one GOP leader who wasn't holding any press conferences -- Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas).
As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Sessions was the man in charge of keeping New York's 23rd district in the GOP column, where it's been for more than a century. But Democrat Bill Owens managed to win the seat instead, besting Conservative candidate Doug Hoffman and thereby marring Republicans' otherwise triumphant storyline.
So how much was Sessions really to blame for the saga in upstate New York, where Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava dropped out under pressure from conservatives and ended up endorsing Owens? Interviews with several GOP lawmakers and party strategists Wednesday suggested that Sessions' colleagues don't hold him liable for what happened Tuesday night, but the result in New York did yield lessons that the NRCC and the party as a whole should heed going into 2010.
"I think the mistake here would be to savage the committee or waste time worrying about this," said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), who preceeded Sessions as NRCC chairman.
First, there's one point on which Sessions and his colleagues all agree -- the candidate selection process in New York is flawed. Rather than picking their nominee via a competitive primary, the county GOP chairmen from the district got together at a pizza parlor to decide on the party's candidate amongst themselves. They chose Scozzafava, and a disgruntled Hoffman ended up running on the Conservative party line. A similar process occurred before the special election Republicans lost earlier this year in New York's 20th district.
"After two special elections in New York, there is no doubt in my mind that the candidate selection process lacks openness and transparency and should be changed to a primary system so voters can have a say in who their respective parties nominate," Sessions said in a statement Wednesday.
Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) made the same point about how Scozzafava was picked. "The NRCC didn't have anything to do with it," he said. "There should have been a primary."
But blaming the process masks the fact that House Republicans were split on this contest right from the start, with the leadership and many moderates backing Scozzafava and conservatives gravitating toward Hoffman. So members from different wings of the party chose to draw different lessons from Tuesday's debacle.
"If Dede had gone through a primary she might not have faced such opposition," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), advancing the theory that Scozzafava really may have been the best candidate for the seat.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a prominent conservative, drew the opposite conclusion -- if Hoffman had been the candidate all along, he would have prevailed. "I'm disappointed in how it turned out but to even come this close was phenomenal," he said.
Cole said that "by the end, the conference was united behind the only candidate that could win. ... I think the NRCC played the cards it was dealt."
Privately, some party strategists said there were ways to second-guess the performance of Sessions and the NRCC. Could they have done a better job convincing the county chairs to pick a different candidate? Could they have talked more national conservatives into either backing Scozzafava or, at least, sitting out the race? Once Scozzafava dropped out, could they have persuaded her to either back Hoffman or stay neutral, rather than endorse Owens? Were the party's turnout and absentee ballot operations up to snuff? And lastly, should the NRCC have dropped more money into the contest?
Tuesday's loss marked the fifth time in the last two election cycles that Republicans have lost a special election in what both sides considered to be a competitive seat -- two in New York this year, and one apiece in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi in 2008. Sessions blamed the candidates in New York, while Cole before him blamed the candidates and/or the national climate. But in each case, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee outspent the NRCC (just as House Democrats have outraised and outspent Republicans overall in the last two cycles).
Sessions' allies point out that more than $700,000 of the roughly $900,000 the NRCC spent on the contest went into attacking Owens, not boosting Scozzafava, and the committee didn't spend any money criticizing Hoffman. But the bottom line is that the DCCC spent more than $1.1 million on the race, and that financial difference could well have been a key factor in a race decided by just 4 percent.
Going forward, Republicans hope that their positive results in Virginia and New Jersey mean more than the negative one in New York for how they will do in House races next November. The question they face, even in a political environment that might otherwise be favorable, is whether the base and the middle of the party can work together.
"This is not a simplistic problem," said Republican pollster David Winston. "You watched Democrats go through this after the 1994 election. It's the constant tension within any political party."
Simpson said he drew a similar lesson from New York: "This is a demonstration that we can't go against a Democratic opponent, even in a Republican seat, with a divided party."
November 4, 2009; 3:00 PM ET
Categories: 2010 Campaign , GOP Leaders
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