Conservatives rework rhetoric after high-profile New York loss

SARANAC LAKE, N.Y. –Slightly before midnight on Tuesday, reality reared its ugly head. Hoffman lost to Democrat Bill Owens, who became the first member of his party to represent this region of New York in Congress since the 1870s. The margin when Hoffman conceded was slightly more than 4,000 votes. Nothing went right. Owens won his base in the northeastern part of the district, and he won or held his own in the parts of the district that Scozzafava–who endorsed Owens after leaving the race–represents in the assembly. Hoffman underperformed in the Syracuse, N.Y., suburbs that neither candidate had political ties to, even though polls had him leading by a 2-1 margin there.

Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman at his campaign headquarters Tuesday (David Weigel)

Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman at his campaign headquarters Tuesday (David Weigel)

It was a sour note in a night of mostly good news for Republicans. The party’s slate in Virginia, a state where it had lost ground for eight years, was so dominant that it pulled seven Republican candidates into the state House of Delegates. In New Jersey, where several election cycles had seen Republican leads collapse in the final days, former U.S. attorney Chris Christie handily defeated incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine. Conservatives rallied to overturn a same-sex marriage law in Maine, and Republican candidates won surprise, under-the-radar victories in local races in New York and Connecticut.

The problem for conservatives now is their definition of success, in the intoxicating run-up to the election, wasn’t based on a multi-state win. Instead, it was all about Hoffman.

“Hoffman is likely to win,” said Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, during a Monday appearance on Fox News. “This is a classic swing congressional district. If a conservative Republican can win in this district with all the disadvantages of the chaos on the Republican side and the official Republican candidate pulling out and endorsing the Democrat, what does that say to the moderate Democrats in the House?” As late as 10:13 on Tuesday night, the National Review writer Victor Davis Hanson referred to the Democrats’ “three candidates” who looked like they would go down to defeat in a referendum on Barack Obama. Two were defeated–one, Bill Owens, was not.

In the last, frantic 72 hours of the race, conservatives focused on NY-23 as an all-but-sure win for the unlikeliest of candidates, a conservative triumph that would put an exclamation point on a great Republican night. After a Monday night campaign appearance for Hoffman, Jeri Thompson told TWI that a victory for the Conservative “would mean the Blue Dog Democrats stiffen their spines and say ‘no way, there’s no way we’re going to vote for health care.’” In his campaign appearances on Monday and Tuesday, the preternaturally low-key Hoffman began predicting victory. Asked if Scozzafava’s endorsement of Owens would hurt him, he said he’d “win without her.” Asked about the implications of a possible win, Hoffman eschewed the typical “too soon to say” response and talked about what “this victory” would mean for conservative, low-tax and anti-spending values.

If Hoffman and staff were too optimistic, they had their reasons. In the final stretch of the campaign, they welcomed in a surge of anti-abortion and Tea Party activists who hit the streets to canvass and get out votes. On Election Day, the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List coordinated more than a hundred activists to hand out sample ballots at polling stations. And at polling places visited by TWI, turnout was just what Hoffman’s campaign hoped for–high in the right areas–and voters who chose either candidate picked up on aspects of his message.

Continue reading at the Washington Independent, the Colorado Independent’s sister site in D.C.

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David Weigel

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