On paper, the 23rd congressional district in upstate New York, way up near the Canadian border, is solid Republican territory - so solid, in fact, that this particular hunting and fishing region hasn't elected a Democratic congressman since the era immediately preceding the invention of the telephone. That would be circa 1869.
So one might reasonably assume that on Nov. 3, in a special election to fill the recently vacated House seat, that the Republican party's official nominee will win handily and life will go on as normal. Dede Scozzafava is a member of the state legislature with roots in the district, a seasoned pol endorsed by Republicans as disparate as moderate Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - therefore, case closed.
But no. Never underestimate the contemporary Republican propensity for circular firing squads.
The GOP's conservative wing, incensed that Scozzafava harbors tolerant views about abortion and gay marriage, appears determined to bring her down in the name of ideological purity. Big-name conservatives - Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Dick Armey, Michele Bachmann, and many more - have defected to a rookie third-party candidate, an accountant named Doug Hoffman, who is running on New York's Conservative Party line. With eight days left on the campaign calendar, every poll reports that this fundamental Republican fissure is splitting the non-Democratic vote and making it highly likely that the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens, will capture the seat that he normally would never win.
Yeah, this is just one House seat, and the outcome of this race won't change the House power balance one way or the other. But this intramural GOP skirmish - between the purists and the pragmatists, between the grassroots and the party establishment, between the conservative ideologues and those in the party who embrace the notion of "big tent" diversity - is a harbinger of more to come.
We'll see it next summer in the Florida Senate Republican primary, which will pit moderate Charlie Crist (the current governor) against arch-conservative hero Mario Rubio; and we'll surely see it in the next presidential race, particularly if grassroots conservatives flock to a Palin candidacy while pragmatists opt for somebody who can actually win.
It's the old conundrum about going with your heart or voting with your head, and this is what we're seeing right now in upstate New York. The New York Republican establishment, and the GOP campaign committees in Washington, have this wild and crazy notion that a party can return to power only if it diversifies, only if it broadens the ideological spectrum and makes room for politicians who think differently on the issues. After all, that's how the Democrats returned to power on Capitol Hill - by recruiting anti-abortion, pro-gun, fiscally conservative candidates who fit their states and districts.
Hence, the New York GOP's choice of Scozzafava - for a congressional district that gave 52 percent of its '08 presidential vote to Barack Obama. Her formula for winning seemed commonsensical: pull in loyal Republicans, swing voters, conservative Democrats, and labor union folks (she has a good relationship with unions in the district).
But the Republican right favors purity over victory. Mary Matalin, the Republican strategist/talking head, says that Scozzafava's positions are "freedom-squashing." Anti-abortion leader Marjorie Dannenfelser calls the GOP nominee "a radical ultraleftist." (If Scozzafava is indeed a radical ultraleftist, how come the National Rifle Association has seen fit to endorse her?) Palin writes on her Facebook page that Scozzafava represents "politics as usual." The Club for Growth, a purist group that relishes attacking moderate Republicans, is peppering the district with TV ads that urge conservative voters to defect to Hoffman (who is running third in the polls).
The infighting is so bad that it has degenerated into comedic farce. A reporter for the right-wing Weekly Standard magazine has been dogging Scozzafava on the campaign trail, demanding that she explain her reluctance to embrace all manner of conservative orthodoxy - and things got so heated last week that a Scozzafava aide called the cops, claiming that the reporter was harassing the candidate. (A stupid move by the Scozzafava campaign.) Minutes later, the reporter was sitting in his car working on his laptop, when a cop rolled up, asked for his ID, and said (as the reporter later recalled), "You scared the candidate a little bit." The conservative press promptly jumped on this incident to demand last Thursday that Scozzafava quit the race (Redstate.com wrote: "She has become a liar, filing a false police report because a journalist dared ask a question she did not like").
But the bottom line is that the right-wing revolt is likely to cost the GOP an easy House seat and throw it to the Democrat. Newt Gingrich seems to understand the problem; as he wrote the other day, in a warning to conservatives, "if you seek to be a perfect minority, you'll remain a minority...There are times when you have to put together a coalition that has disagreement within it." And as ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum noted the other day, the right's intolerance for big-tent Republicanism "is not a formula for a national party. It's a formula for a more coherent, better mobilized, but perpetually minority party."
How did this House seat become vacant, anyway? Because President Obama tapped the long-serving Republican, John McHugh, to serve as Secretary of the Army. The Obama political team is undoubtedly pleased with the GOP's current intramurals - just as Republican moderates decidely are not.
And down in Florida, where ideology and pragmatism are already in collision, where Senate GOP hopeful Charlie Crist is already under severe attack from the right, state Republican chairman (and Crist booster) Jim Greer reportedly pleads, "Lord, save me from the purists."