WATERTOWN, N.Y. — Conservatives declared victory in the 2009 off-year elections four days before voters went the polls. With the withdrawal of Dede Scozzafava, the embattled moderate Republican candidate, from the special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District, activists and organizers are toasting a shocking victory over the Republican establishment.
[GOP1]“WE WON!” wrote Erick Erickson, the editor of RedState.com, after the news broke. “I said this was our hill to die on, but to paraphrase Patton, we won my making the other guys die on our Hill!”
The hero of the moment is Doug Hoffman, the first-time candidate of the Conservative Party who effectively forced Scozzafava out of the race after national conservative groups like the Club for Growth and the Susan B. Anthony List showered his campaign with cash and staffed it with volunteers. On Sunday night, campaign strategists reacted to Scozzafava’s endorsement of Bill Owens, the Democratic candidate, by projecting confidence and dismissing the efforts Democrats made to win her over. Hoffman’s campaign was cheered by a survey from the North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling showing the candidate easily consolidating Scozzafava’s support. It did not push back against reports that the candidate failed to win over Scozzafava for an endorsement.
“I didn’t reach out to her,” said Hoffman’s spokesman Rob Ryan. “From day one, I haven’t had a thought about Dede Scozzafava unless it was about getting her out of this race.”
Still, conservative activists and Republican strategists told TWI that they were watching the results from NY-23 as part of a picture with at least three other high-profile elections on Tuesday. They are also looking to, and preparing to spin, an all-but-certain victory in Virginia’s statewide races, a possible victory in New Jersey’s gubernatorial election, and Maine ballot measures on tax rates and gay marriage.
In even the most disappointing scenario, where Republicans only gain ground in Virginia, they are getting ready to argue that voters are growing cold on the Democratic agenda and Barack Obama’s vaunted brand. (None of of the conservatives who spoke to TWI mentioned the mayoral election in Atlanta, where Mary Norwood, a onetime Republican activist, is expected to win the first round of voting and head to a runoff. If elected, Norwood would be the first white mayor of Atlanta since Richard Nixon’s presidency.)
“After the 2008 election, [there] was a lot of analysis that this country had made a big seismic shift to left of center,” said Gary Bauer, the president of American Values, and one of the first conservative organizers to endorse Hoffman. “I don’t think anything is going to happen to confirm that analysis. It’s still a right of center country. The ‘blame Bush’ card is getting old.”
Last week, the Los Angeles Times characterized the White House’s optimal election day scenario as a loss for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Deeds, a win for Gov. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), and a “tie-breaker” Democratic win in NY-23. Conservatives, while optimistic about sweeping every one of these races, gave TWI some reasons why losses in New York, New Jersey and Maine would not necessarily be big defeats for the movement. But all suggested that the night would start out with unalloyed good news for the GOP: sweeping victories in Virginia. Polls in the commonwealth close at 7 p.m., and former Attorney General Robert McDonnell, the GOP’s candidate, leads Deeds by double-digit margins.
“This is a state that Democrats said was going blue, or least purple,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “How do they explain it if they lose?”
Republicans are doing what they can to refocus on attention to what, according to polls, could be a Republican landslide. It would happen in a state that the Obama-Biden ticket carried by six points. Last week, RNC Chairman Michael Steele trekked across the Potomac and into Virginia for rallies with the GOP ticket. Victories in the races for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general on Tuesday would mark only the second time in history–the first was 1997–when Republicans grabbed control of all three of Virginia’s statewide offices.
Republicans are optimistic, too, about a handful Republican candidates winning back state legislative seats that had fallen to the Democrats over the past few election cycles. One of those candidates, Barbara Comstock, is a powerful Republican lawyer running for a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates who worked for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and the defense teams of both I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Tom DeLay. In the summer, her partisan image was seen as a possible impediment to victory. Today, conservatives are hopeful that she’ll be swept in on McDonnell’s coattails.
There is less conservative optimism about New Jersey. It’s a Democratic-leaning state that’s played host to many Republican candidates who lost early poll leads as the electorate moved back to the majority party. Chris Christie, the GOP standard-bearer, has watched a once-commanding lead dwindle into a tie with Corzine. President Obama has repeatedly stumped for Corzine, hitting two of New Jersey’s vote-rich but poor cities in a Sunday campaign swing.
If Christie loses, Republicans have multiple scapegoats at the ready. One is Chris Daggett, a liberal Republican who ran as an independent and trained most of his fire on the GOP candidate. The other, to conservatives, would be Christie himself. He beat Americans for Prosperity state chairman Steve Lonegan in a surprisingly tough summer primary, taking hits from Lonegan for allegedly being too far to the left. At AFP’s “Defending the American Dream” summit held last month in northern Virginia, Lonegan told TWI that Christie was failing to give conservatives a reason to come out and vote. This week, Lonegan has joined Christie on the campaign trail to fire up conservative voters, but this pessimistic spin is at the ready if Corzine pulls out a win.
“If Christie is to win in New Jersey,” said Citizens United President and conservative activist David Bossie, “it would be a good day for America. It would be a rebuke of the establishment that is in complete control of New Jersey politics. But Christie is not really a leading conservative. He’s a good Republican, and he’d do a good job, and his election would be a rebuke to Barack Obama.”
Polls in New Jersey and in Maine close at 8 p.m., and few expect the results for either state to be announced quickly. And polls close at 11 p.m. ET in a special election for Congress in CA-10, a northern California district that Democrats have easily held in the past. Few conservatives give Republican candidate David Harmer a chance there, as Lt. Gov. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who’s won elections in the state for decades, holds strong leads in polls of the early and absentee voters who make up more than half of California’s electorate. Inevitably, the election will be seen in the context of what happens in NY-23–where polls close at 9 p.m., and where counting could go on for hours. Some Hoffman backers believe that Mike Huckabee, one of few prominent Harmer supporters, endorsed the candidate before he endorsed Hoffman because of Huckabee’s long-standing feud with the Club for Growth.
Heading into Tuesday, most conservatives and Republicans professed optimism about what will happen at the polls. But an alternative take has already been written. Michael Barone, the editor of the Almanac of American Politics a conservative-leaning columnist, told TWI that it would be practically impossible for Democrats to claim significant wins even if they succeed in the White House’s “tiebreaker” scenario.
“If Corzine and Owens win,” said Barone, “they both will have gotten well under Obama’s percentages in those constituencies.”