In little more than a week, New York's 23rd congressional district has become Ground Zero in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party. What was previously an intense, yet relatively low-key struggle for the GOP's identity has exploded into a full-fledged civil war. Businessman Doug Hoffman took the Conservative Party line when state GOP county chairs nominated Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava to run for the seat made open by incumbent John McHugh's selection as Secretary of the Army. Hoffman believes Scozzafava to be too liberal for the district. In a New York Post op-ed, he declares:
I’m a lifelong Republican running as the nominee of the New York State Conservative Party. I didn’t leave the Republican Party, the party left me. The GOP bosses in New York and Washington felt the candidate needed to be as liberal as possible. They picked a professional politician, with a voting record more liberal than 46 Democrats in the New York state legislature. They threw principles out the window. Their candidate has voted for increased spending, higher taxes, gay marriage and abortion. She supports “Card Check” (EFCA) and is supported by trial lawyers, gay activists and Big Labor. In 2008 she ran on the line of the radical left Working Families Party, ACORN’s political party in New York.
The battle I wage is not a lonely one. Like-minded citizens in the district, the state and the nation have joined me in this fight.
It is a battle that has been joined by current and former elected Republican officials, conservative activists and members of the ever-growing Tea Party and 9/12 movements. And if the GOP picks liberal candidates for the midterm congressional elections next year, they may find that there are a lot more people out there like me who won’t go along. We are not going to win by becoming more like the Democrats. We’re going to win by standing up for our beliefs.
Under normal circumstances, this race wouldn't attract much attention. These are not normal times. Hoffman's challenge has split what should be the conservative majority in the district -- leaving Democrat Bill Owens leading in the last round of polls. But, today's conservatives appear willing to lose individual battles in order to win the larger war -- defining what the Republican Party is about.
And it has attracted those who would dare claim that they speak for the party. Thus, late last week, Sarah Palin announced support for Hoffman on her Facebook page. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- who has already made moves toward a 2012 presidential bid -- seems ready to also throw his support to the third party candidate.
Trying to come to Scozzafava's aid is former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Attempting to attest to Scozzafava's bona fides, Gingrich declared he is aiding her because he wants to re-establish "a Republican majority." Palin, however, made it clear in her endorsement announcement that creating a "Republican majority" that has too many members sharing similar positions with Democrats is not a party worth building.
And thus is created a moment of great irony.
In a previous iteration of establishment vs. insurgent, Gingrich was on the side of the latter: He was the leader of the conservative forces in the House who rebelled against former President George H. W. Bush when he famously broke his "read my lips" pledge and agreed to raise taxes in 1990. Gingrich was the House Republican Whip at the time (a position he won by one vote the year before). Long-time House Republican Leader Bob Michel of Illinois supported Bush I's tax-increase plan he orchestrated with the House Democrats.
Gingrich, Dick Armey and the other then-younger conservatives saw this as a betrayal -- not merely of Bush's anti-tax vow, but also of the spirit of Ronald Reagan's anti-tax message. Though the tax increase eventually passed the Congress and Bush signed it into law, the Gingrich-led rebellion laid the foundation for the eventual "Contract With America," which included several tax cut provisions.
The old "Contract" gang has fallen apart. In addition to Gingrich standing with Scozzafava is current House Republican Leader John Boehner. But another old partner in the Republican Revolution is the aforementioned Dick Armey, whose "Freedom Works" organization has taken the lead in putting together the latest conservative uprising, the Tea Parties. He calls the Battle of the 23rd -- and support for Hoffman -- "a game-changer."
And it it is: The Republican Party appears ready to decide whether it will be like historical majority parties -- a coalition of various ideologies (reflecting both the core "base" and more moderate elements) -- or if it will grow solely from its core elements. It's rare to find a majority party made of the latter, i.e. a "purist" party -- at least in the United States.
Will that be different this time? Only the outcome of the GOP's civil war will tell.