Hundreds of happy Republicans packed themselves into the ballroom of the Marriott Hotel in Boca Raton for the Election Night party, where they planned to celebrate Allen West’s anticipated victory in Florida’s 22nd congressional district. Polling places had closed an hour earlier and many of the attendees still wore stickers on their shirts designating them as official poll watchers. Two giant television screens were showing Fox News election coverage and, shortly after 8 p.m., a cheer went up from the crowd when the TVs flashed the first returns from the 22nd district: West with 54 percent of the vote to 45 percent for the Democratic incumbent, Ron Klein.
It had been a long, hard two years for West’s supporters. The retired Army lieutenant colonel had challenged Klein in 2008. With little support from national GOP leadership, however, West had been outspent nearly five to one by the Democrat and lost by 29,000 votes. Undaunted, West resolved to try again in 2010 and quickly emerged as one of the Republican Party’s most popular candidates, garnering strong backing from the Tea Party movement and raising more than $5 million for his rematch with Klein. Now, in the Marriott ballroom on Election Night, the air was electric with the sense of impending victory and the deejay played a song by the pop group Black Eyed Peas.
“Tonight’s gonna be a good night,” they sang and indeed, it was a good night for Republicans. At that moment, however, my thoughts turned to someone who was far away from the ballroom in Boca Raton, and I slipped outside onto a quiet terrace to make a call to upstate New York.
Doug Hoffman answered the phone. Hoffman’s underdog campaign in the 2009 special election in New York’s 23rd district (see “Battle Cry in the North Country,” TAS, December 2009/January 2010) struck a spark among conservatives that became a grassroots wildfire. Backed by Tea Party activists, Hoffman’s third-party challenge drove GOP establishment choice Dede Scozzafava to quit and endorse the Democrat, Bill Owens, who won by a narrow plurality. Despite that disappointing outcome, Erick Erickson of the influential RedState.com wrote, the uprising in upstate New York was a “trial run for Florida,” where conservative Marco Rubio was fighting the establishment’s pick, Gov. Charlie Crist, in the Senate primary.
When the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer prematurely endorsed Crist in May 2009, polls showed Rubio trailing the moderate governor by more than 30 points. By November 2009, Crist’s lead had been cut to 10 points, but it was not until late January 2010 — after Scott Brown shocked the world by winning the Massachusetts Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy — that Rubio finally pulled ahead in the Florida primary. By April, Crist quit the GOP to run as an independent, but proved no match for Rubio, whose victory was one of the first races called by networks on Election Night, eliciting more cheers from Republicans gathered in the Boca Raton ballroom. And outside under the palm trees, I was on the phone with Doug Hoffman, the unlikely hero whose New York campaign helped inspire the conservative insurgency in Florida.
Hoffman would not be among those elected to the 112th Congress. After his 2009 near-miss, Hoffman sought the Republican nomination in 2010, but was outspent by Wall Street investment banker Matt Doheny, who ran TV attack ads that unfairly portrayed Hoffman — a mild-mannered accountant — as a shady character who was “personally pocketing thousands in campaign dollars.” Hoffman lost the GOP primary by a mere 700 votes. Despite the personal attacks, however, he decided to endorse his Republican rival for the general election because he wanted to do “what was good for America,” namely, to defeat Democrats and “fight the Pelosi agenda.” In a final irony, Doheny came up 3,600 votes short and the Democrat Owens was reelected in what was otherwise a historic tsunami of victories for House Republicans.
THAT IRONIC OUTCOME wasn’t yet known when I called Hoffman on Election Night. What was apparent was that the wheel of fate had turned. A mere 18 months after a Time magazine cover story declared Republicans an “endangered species,” Democrats suffered their worst loss in any congressional election since 1938.
“I think my campaign, and the people who were supporting me, woke up America and said, ‘We’re fed up. We have to do something about it. We’re not going to take more spending, more taxes, and more government regulations,’ ” Hoffman said. “I’m disappointed that I’m not going to be part of the excitement and going to Washington, but if the legacy of my race last year is the people who are going to Washington this year, then I’m very proud to watch what’s happening tonight, and anticipate the Republicans taking over the House.”
Many of the newly elected Republicans were, like Hoffman, ordinary Americans with little or no prior political experience. In Florida, where four incumbent House Democrats were defeated, the GOP’s winners included a funeral director (Steve Southerland, 2nd district), a former sheriff’s deputy (Sandy Adams, 24th district), and the man whose election the crowd in Boca Raton had gathered to celebrate, Allen West. Given short shrift by party leaders two years earlier, the Iraq War veteran this time was one of two black Republicans (Tim Scott of South Carolina is the other) elected to the 112th Congress.
It was past 11 p.m. before West gave his victory speech, which was repeatedly interrupted by supporters chanting “USA! USA! USA!” West invoked the Founding Fathers and the Gettysburg Address — “government of the people, by the people, for the people” — and closed by employing a phrase made famous in an American Spectator article by Angelo Codevilla.
“I’m not going to Washington, D.C. to seek to be a Ruling Class elitist….I’m going to Washington, D.C., to fix the problems of this nation — and then I’m coming home.”