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Doug Hoffman’s loss, and the future of the throw-out-the-RINOs movement

Even though Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman lost the race for Congress in New York’s 23rd Congressional District last night, many conservative activists believe they still won.

As a result of the successful backlash against the nomination of liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava, the Republican Party establishment has surely realized the trouble it will bring upon itself – not only in NY23, but everywhere else – if it continues to throw its weight behind candidates who don’t support the policies favored by Republican voters.

I think they’re right. I think party leaders across the country will think twice before getting behind candidates the base is likely to reject.

But in the end, it doesn’t do you a lot of good if the candidates you prefer don’t get elected, and taking down faux Republican Scozzafava and Democrat Bill Owens at the same time proved to be a bridge too far.

In order to avoid similar “victories” all across the country in 2010 – the kind where you make your point but you accomplish nothing of substance – the conservative movement would be wise to consider that, at the local level, there is more to this than identifying the “RINO” and the “true conservative” and making the right choice.

To listen to much of the activist base, you’d think the party’s luminaries chose Scozzafava over Hoffman for the GOP nomination simply because they hate and distrust low-tax, small-government, social conservatives.

“Our base. We hate them! Nominating Dede will be a great way to thumb our noses at them!”

So it is imagined that the GOP establishment was thinking. The base also presumes that the choice of a moderate over a more conservative candidate must be question of electability, with the party honchos concluding that the more conservative candidate must surely be incapable of attracting a big, “inclusive” majority.

The truth is that, much of the time, such choices have little to do with anything so strategic or ideological. And before the base gears up to spread this movement across the country, it should know that.

Compare the backgrounds of Scozzafava and Hoffman. Beginning in 1993, Scozzafava served as a town official, and later as mayor, of Gouvernour, New York, before being elected to the state assembly in 1998. She may not be a very conservative Republican, but she has been a very prominent Republican in her area for quite some time now.

She clearly had formed key relationships with party officials, and had earned her wings throughout the years in their eyes. Hoffman had not.

Both parties have their little ways of doing things. The Democrats’ way of doing things is fairly simple: Ask the union what to do, and do what you’re told. The Republicans’ way of doing things is usually to make people pay their dues and wait their turn, and then, when an opening occurs, to pick the people who have done so.

I am not defending this as smart or strategic in any way. I’m simply telling you that this is what they do. Anyone who has spent much time around Republican electoral politics at the local level knows this. It’s not as much about ideology as you think it is.

When the party chairman needs to find a candidate to get behind in the event of an opening, the choice has much to do with who the chairman knows, and with whom the chairman feels comfortable.

Scozzafava had a decade-plus record as a legislator. She had proven her ability to win elections. Those are the things party chairs look at.

Doug Hoffman, by contrast, has never held elective office of any kind. While many see this as a positive because he is not a career politician – and I’m not saying they’re wrong – he lacked most of the background party regulars look for when choosing a candidate to back.

Activists who think it should have been so clear – Hoffman is the true conservative so you support him – completely ignore all these other factors.

And while his stated positions on issues provided hope he would have been a better congressman than Scozzafava or Owens, he had no experience as a legislator. Thus, we had no idea how effectively he might have crafted or participated in the making of legislation. We had no idea how effective a committee member he might have been. We don’t know how well he would have handled constituent services.

To the people who actually vote in a congressional district, these things matter.

That’s why, if activists hope to take NY23 nationwide in 2010, they might consider that the best place to find conservative candidates is not among the outsider set, but among experienced legislators who have paid their dues, proven their ability to win elections and amassed a record of supporting conservative policies.

It may be that you can’t find one everywhere you might like to, and if that’s the case, you might end up getting behind an outsider with no political experience, and touting his or her outsider credentials.

But don’t be surprised if the party regulars simply get behind someone they know, and when they do, don’t be so sure it’s about ideology. It’s just the way Republicans do things. Conservatives who want to win these nominations need to start years earlier earning the chance. They can’t expect to ride in with the cavalry from the outside, especially on a third-party ticket, and win.

Doug Hoffman couldn’t, even in a safe Republican district, even on a big Republican night, even after all the GOP establishment and conservative activists nationwide got behind him.

Because “true conservatism,” for all it offers, is not enough to make you a winner.