On the Fissures in the Republican Party

If you’re any sort of political junkie, today has been endlessly fascinating.

In upstate New York, a bizarre 3-way special election campaign to fill a House of Representatives seat has been waged. The Democratic Party put up Bill Owens, the Republican Party put up Dede Scozzafava. One of New York’s minor parties, the Conservative Party, put Doug Hoffman on the ballot.

And this led to Republicans of various stripes — from Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann to Rick Santorum and Tim Pawlenty — endorsing the Conservative Party candidate, Hoffman, over the Republican Party candidate, Scozzafava. The netroots, such as Red State, backed Hoffman, and the leaders of the tea-party protest movement, such as Glenn Beck, put their energy and money behind him as well.

Scozzafava was not without her backers. She had the Republican establishment at her back, such as the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, Congressional leaders such as John Boehner, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

But, somehow, this little race turned into something vaster.

Time, in an article dated yesterday, calls it “A GOP Civil War in Upstate New York.” Because that’s what it’s turned into, as Kate Pickert explains: “It’s about a Republican Party with little power in the Beltway searching for a way out of the wilderness. And it’s about conservative Republicans sending a message: the future of the party is the conservative base.”

Andrew Sullivan, in a piece called “The Dixiefication of the GOP,” wrote: “What’s interesting about it is that it’s the first time the tea-party base has declared a real war on the GOP. I guess you could see the Palin nomination as the first real swipe at the Republican leadership, but it was an attempt by the GOP leadership to coopt the base fringe. This time, there’s no attempt, just a brutal civil war.”

I’d followed this race a fair bit, because it was so… strange. The polling was tight, with Owens and Hoffman running neck and neck in the mid-thirties, and Scozzafava running a distant third.

Then, today, the race took an even stranger turn — Scozzafava suspended her campaign, essentially withdrawing from the race. And she did not endorse a candidate.

Red State gloated: “WE WON! Now, I hope everyone rallies behind Hoffman and gives him the momentum and energy he needs to win on Tuesday. Let’s rally. I said this was our hill to die on, but to paraphrase Patton, we won my making the other guys die on our Hill!” Followed by an article with this subhead: The GOP Will Either Win With Conservatives Or Lose Without Us.

Mark Ambinder, writing for The Atlantic, offered some thoughts on what this means: “Republicans will derive two lessons from the results of this race. One is that the activist base of the party is becoming increasingly powerful in the one area that had eluded them: candidate selection. Other conservative Republicans may now feel more comfortable if they decide to challenge incumbents in primaries. Democrats, believing that Republicans will conservatize-themselves to death demographically, will take this as a positive trend for the long-term. The second lesson is that populist, regular guy candidates win in supposedly ‘moderate’ districts.”

As someone who nominally refers to himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” the ossification of the Republican Party into a Conservatives-Only Club is worrisome. Not because I’d be unwelcome in the Republican tent — I already knew that — but because the Republican Party is marginalizing itself as a political force. When Red State calls for a purge of non-conservatives and the Republican establishment that allowed the “civil war” in upstate New York to happen, they’re advocating policies, like ideological purity or litmus tests, that could further marginalize the Republican Party.

As the Republican Party continues to lurch further to the right, the Republican Party will leave people behind. This may not lead automatically to gains for the Democratic Party; rather, this leaves an opening for a new center-right party, such as a coalition between conservative Democrats and the nascent Modern Whig Party. Teddy Roosevelt Republicans, like myself, have no place now (and some argue that the term itself is an oxymoron). Rockefeller Republicans have been increasingly marginalized over the years, and New England’s Republican Party has fallen increasingly out-of-step with the rightward lurch. Some call the GOP a “regional rump party,” and its base of support is mainly in the old South, a historical happenstance that would appall the 19th-century founders of the party.

The Republican coalition in the last fifty years has always been a delicate marriage between the fiscal conservatives and the social conservatives. The former has been using the latter as their foot soldiers since the days of Nixon and Reagan. Now the latter are lashing out. The civil war in New York exposed the fissures in the coalition, and they may not be easy to surmount.

The next two or three years will be fascinating, if today is anything to judge by, as the Republican Party immolates itself.

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