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The Take

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By Dan Balz
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Significant battles sometimes take place in obscure places. Until the past month, New York's 23rd Congressional District was known mostly for its cold climate, its history of electing Republicans to the House and its relatively moderate politics.

The GOP has held the district for more than a century. As a result of a surprise announcement on Saturday, Republicans are likely to continue to hold it for the time being. But the developments that put Republicans back in a stronger position to win a special House election on Tuesday will reverberate unpredictably far beyond the district's boundaries.

By the time this fight is over, several questions will be front and center heading into the 2010 midterm elections. One is who really controls the Republican Party. Another is whether grass-roots anger is now the driving force in politics. A third is whether all this is a wise and winning strategy for Republicans or a great gamble by what has been a beleaguered party.

When President Obama nominated Republican Rep. John McHugh to be his Army secretary, he created a vacancy in McHugh's Upstate district that quickly became the scene of a civil war within the GOP.

McHugh, a moderate Republican, first won his seat in 1992 and was well suited to the views of his constituents. His district, like many in the Northeast, has been moving toward the Democrats.

The local Republican leadership tapped state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava to run in the special election. She seemed to them a good fit for the moderate district but was out of step with national Republicans, supporting both abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Nonetheless, she enjoyed the backing of the national party and, among others, former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

Conservatives rebelled. To grass-roots activists and some prominent party officials, Scozzafava's brand of moderate politics was an offense to GOP principles. Quickly they began to coalesce around Doug Hoffman, a Republican running as the Conservative Party candidate.

"Tea party" activists took up the cause for Hoffman. Prominent conservative radio talkers backed him, as did a host of grass-roots-oriented conservative organizations.

Then there was Sarah Palin. In her first significant move since she resigned as governor of Alaska, Palin announced her support for Hoffman, prompting others to do the same. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is eyeing a 2012 presidential candidacy and knows the energy and power of the party's conservative base, also backed Hoffman.

Scozzafava held a narrow lead over Democrat Bill Owens when all this started. But Hoffman's growing support gave rise to fears among Republicans that he would so divide the GOP vote that Democrats might steal the seat. Then Scozzafava rapidly began to fade.

By Saturday morning, the race was between Owens and Hoffman. By Saturday afternoon, Hoffman was rated the favorite. In between, Scozzafava announced that she was suspending her campaign, and Republican Party leaders quickly endorsed Hoffman.

"If Hoffman pulls it off, it will be a case study in [political science] graduate seminars for years to come on how the grass roots rebelled against the party bosses and won," one conservative Republican strategist said Saturday.

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