Asked what he’d do if he got to Congress, Doug Hoffman hesitates. He has a few ideas, such as revisiting the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, putting the breaks on cap-and-trade legislation. But the idea of winning the Nov. 3 election and becoming the only non-Republican, non-Democrat in the House is a bit much. The national media would descend on him, right away. And that still takes Hoffman by surprise.
“I’m not in this to get the splash and the notoriety,” said Hoffman, “I’m only in this, as an average American, standing up and saying it’s time we take our country back. But, certainly, if it does encourage other people to get up and do that, then so be it.”
In July, Hoffman bid to become the Republican Party’s nominee for a special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District. The nominee would be chosen by party leaders in the district’s 11 counties; few people were surprised when they chose Deirdre “Dede” Scozzafava, a five-term assemblywoman who’d voted with Democrats on abortion and labor issues, factors that could help the party hold a historically conservative district that had voted for the Obama-Biden ticket last year. Hoffman, a 59-year-old accountant making his first run for office, forged ahead and grabbed the nomination of the venerable Conservative Party.
Since then, Hoffman’s campaign has become this election cycle’s great conservative crusade. On Sept. 5, the candidate was endorsed by 9-12 Candidates, an offshoot of Glenn Beck’s 9-12 Project, and a reflection of the support he was getting on conservative blogs. On Sept. 28, both Fred Thompson and the Club for Growth put their weight behind Hoffman, with the Club putting $250,000 into TV ads attacking Scozzafava and Democratic candidate Bill Owens. Those endorsements, coupled with reports that Scozzafava was struggling, brought the American Conservative Union and the anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony List into the fray to back Hoffman. On Monday afternoon, FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey announced that he’d campaign for Hoffman, putting the Tea Party movement’s seal of approval on the upstart campaign.
Two weeks out from the election, the battle in upstate New York is being portrayed in the press as a “civil war” between Republican factions. That might understate how much support for Hoffman, and how little for Scozzafava, there is in the conservative movement. As far as the roiling Republican base is concerned, support for Hoffman has become a test of whether a conservative leader can be trusted. Conservative media, from magazines to blogs, are using the low-stakes special election to test their ability to drive news cycles and raise money.
“This is not a tea party hangover,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony list. “It is every piece of the conservative base–the Club for Growth, social conservatives, right to work, pro-lifers, everyone–coming together.’
The timeline of Hoffman’s surge could become a guide for other conservative rebellions. On Sept. 14, The Weekly Standard ran a glowing profile of Hoffman by conservative journalist Kenneth Tomlinson (“he joined the Army reserves, got married, started a family, and went to work for Price Waterhouse”), that made the case for a “Buckley scenario” in NY-23. Tomlinson’s reference was the 1970 campaign in which the Conservative Party’s Jim Buckley, brother of the late National Review Editor-in-Chief William F. Buckley, blew past a liberal Republican and Democrat to win a Senate seat from New York with 38 percent of the vote.
Tomlinson’s scenario was less eccentric than it may have looked. Rob Ryan, Hoffman’s campaign manager, cut his teeth on Buckley’s unsuccessful 1976 re-election bid; he came on board after a conversation with John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who was one of the first to rule Scozzafava out as a credible candidate.
The campaign set about working conservative blogs, conservative media and Tea Party groups who were plugged into both to drive home the message that Scozzafava was a liberal, backed by unions, who would say anything to anyone. The Republicans who’ve endorsed her, said Ryan, have “fallen for a scam.”
“I’ve long said that she’s the Bernie Madoff of New York Republican politics,” said Ryan.
“If you’re talking face-to-face to Assemblywoman Scozzafava,” said Hoffman, “she’ll tell you what you want to hear and it sounds great. And then she’ll talk to another group of people and tell them what they want to hear.”
Conservative media outlets pushed Scozzafava harder than the candidate could have expected. A reporter for Human Events got her campaign to say that Scozzafava opposed “card check,” labor reform that would make it easier for workers to start unions, while she’d said the opposite of that in a union questionnaire. The Weekly Standard asked the campaign whether Scozzafava would promise not to switch to the Democratic Party if she got to Congress; her noncommittal answer sparked the rumor that she might actually consider bolting the GOP. Conservative muckraker Michael Patrick Leahy conducted interviews for his TCOT Report web site that pieced together a “breach of trust” in the process that selected Scozzafava.
Stories like these motivated the conservative “netroots” to jump into the race for Hoffman. The key mover was Patrick Ruffini, a veteran of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign who had programmed fundraising drives that netted hundreds of thousands of dollars for Republican candidates in previous special elections. But on Oct. 17, Ruffini endorsed Hoffman, arguing that “the RNC and NRCC are doubling down on a flawed candidate with little chance of generating any significant momentum in the last 16 days.” Coming from a consultant who drove crucial funds to Jim Tedisco, the failed Republican candidate in the June NY-20 special election, this was an indictment of the GOP.
“What’s noteworthy about the comparison between NY-20 and NY-23 is that Jim Tedisco was not a textbook conservative either,” Ruffini told TWI. “In fact, his reluctance to oppose the stimulus early on was a factor in his defeat. Yet the conservative grassroots went all out for Tedisco because he agreed with us on most issues and was a good fit for a district we had a real chance of picking up. Scozzafava, on the other hand, appears to agree with us on nothing.”
None of the conservative activists that TWI spoke to were particularly worried about being seen as “spoilers” if Owens wins NY-23 for the Democrats. David Keating, the executive director of the Club for Growth, said that Scozzafava had no chance of winning anyway, and that nothing could be spoiled. The Susan B. Anthony List’s Dannenfelser suggested that a Scozzafava victory might be the worst possible outcome.
“We’ve seen this with Olympia Snowe,” said Dannenfelser. “We don’t need another Olympia Snowe. We will be dealing with her for the rest of our days.”
As the campaign draws to a close, Republicans who’ve endorsed Scozzafava have been scorched by Hoffman supporters. Conservative blogger and columnist Michelle Malkin, who used her syndicated column last week to label Scozzafava “An ACORN-Friendly, Big Labor-Backing, Tax-and-Spend Radical in GOP Clothing,” blasted the RNC and Newt Gingrich for endorsing the candidate. “If you have given to the NRCC, RNC, or Newt Gingrich under the impression that they are using the money to support conservatism,” wrote Malkin, “you might want to ask for your money back.” Later, Malkin posted an RNC mail survey defaced by a Hoffman supporter, and let Hoffman write a guest post on her site.
If the conservative base pulls off the NY-23 upset, it would get a congressman who backs every one of their key priorities. In an interview with TWI, conducted while he drove to speak at the opening of his fourth campaign office–one fewer than Owens, three more than Scozzafava–Hoffman sounded conservative notes on taxes, climate change legislation, the stimulus, abortion rights, and gay marriage.
“The jury’s out on what’s really going on and whether we have global warming or not,” said Hoffman, explaining why he’d oppose cap-and-trade legislation, “but we all want to protect our environment.” Unlike Scozzafava, he opposed and opposes the economic stimulus package and further bailouts, and said he’d use whatever clout he had in Congress to stop funds that hadn’t been appropriated yet, making an exception for “infrastructure” spending.