The Take: Squabbles among Democrats on health care and Republicans in House race

Newt Gingrich supports GOP candidate Dede Scozzafava in a New York congressional race. Some high-profile Republicans back her Conservative Party foe.
Newt Gingrich supports GOP candidate Dede Scozzafava in a New York congressional race. Some high-profile Republicans back her Conservative Party foe. (Steven Senne/associated Press)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

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, Republicans and Democrats face internal debates about what it really means to be a political party. A once-obscure special House election in Upstate New York and the high-profile wrangling over health-care reform 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 GOP hands for generations. It is now the scene of a high-stakes struggle between national party leaders that could result in a Democratic victory.

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 GOP 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 abortion rights and gay rights. She is, her supporters say, 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 ticket, is challenging her, 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 GOP hierarchy. The contest has become an early example of the fights that are likely to play out in the future as Republicans argue about how best to rebuild their party after devastating defeats in 2006 and 2008.

Scozzafava has the support of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (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, would 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 may be able to slip past both the major-party nominees in what would be a huge upset, although he would have to withstand a vigorous attack from his rivals in the final days of the campaign. As likely is that Scozzafava and Hoffman will divide the Republican vote and allow Owens to win.

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