N.Y. contest a bellwether for the GOP over ideology, electability

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009; 12:28 PM

Is politics about standing for principles and fighting for them? Or is politics about winning elections and passing legislation?

In an ideal world, politics is both of those things, but at the moment, both Republicans and Democrats face internal debates about the true nature of what it means to be a political party. A once-obscure special House election in upstate New York and the high-profile debate over health care illustrate the uncomfortable choices that accompany building stable, governing coalitions.

Start with the Republicans. New York's 23rd congressional district, in the far northern reaches of the Empire State, has been in Republican hands for generations. It is now the scene of a high-stakes struggle between national Republican leaders that could result in a Democratic victory and an embarrassment to the GOP.

The story is simple. The 23rd district was held for years by John McHugh, a moderate who fit the district and who was part of a vanishing species of Republicans nationally. Tapped by President Obama to serve as Army secretary, McHugh has left behind what has turned into a nasty mess for his party.

The Republican nominee, backed by local party leaders, is Dede Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman. Like some other northeastern Republicans, she is generally conservative on many fiscal issues but favors both abortion rights and gay rights. She is, say her supporters, the kind of Republican who can win a race in a district like New York's 23rd.

But Scozzafava hardly represents what the base of the Republican Party believes. She is out of step on core issues and, as a result, has drawn opposition from the right. Doug Hoffman, running on the Conservative Party ballot, is challenging the GOP nominee and his growing strength makes it possible that Democrat Bill Owens could grab the seat away from the Republicans.

The race has badly divided the national Republican hierarchy. The contest has become an early example of the fights likely to play out in the future as Republicans argue among themselves about how best to rebuild their party after two devastating defeats in 2006 and 2008.

Scozzafava enjoys the support of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the National Rifle Association. Hoffman has won the backing of two prospective 2012 presidential candidates -- former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and a host of other prominent conservative Republicans.

The arguments over the Hoffman-Scozzafava candidacies were summed up best by Palin and Gingrich.

"Doug Hoffman stands for the principles that all Republicans should share: smaller government, lower taxes, strong national defense and a commitment to individual liberty," Palin wrote in her endorsement. "Political parties must stand for something. When Republicans were in the wilderness in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan knew that the doctrine of 'blurring the lines' between parties was not an appropriate way to win elections."

Gingrich warned against imposing ideological litmus tests and said the party should not purge all prospective candidates who don't agree with GOP doctrine 100 percent of the time. That, he told Fox News, will guarantee Obama's reelection in 2012 and a continued Democratic majority in the House.

The most recent polls show Scozzafava sliding and Hoffman rising. Some polling suggests Hoffman might actually be able to slip past both the Republican and Democratic nominees in what would be a major upset, although he will have to withstand a vigorous attack from his rivals in the final days of the campaign to manage that feat. As likely is that Scozzafava and Hoffman will divide the Republican vote and allow Owens to win.

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