SARANAC LAKE, N.Y. — If a Hollywood producer were casting for the role of a revolutionary hero, no talent agent would send Doug Hoffman to the audition. Yet the Hoffman congressional campaign has ignited a revolution within the Republican Party, the results of which are already being felt.
Even while the Hoffman campaign’s early-evening “cautious optimism” gave way to concern — with staffers huddling in the “war room” here at the Hotel Saranac — one official of New York’s Conservative Party was already in a celebratory mood, laughing as he yelled into his cell phone: “Guess who will not be representing the 23rd District? Dede Scozzafava!”
The liberal Republican Scozzafava suspended her campaign four days before Election Day, but still got about 7,000 votes — a number greater than the margin of victory for the Democrat she endorsed, Bill Owens. Her defeat was victory enough for some conservatives, on a night when the GOP swept the off-off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. And the candidate who drove Scozzafava out of the race struck a defiant tone in conceding his narrow loss to Owens.
“This one was worth the fight.…. And this is only one fight in the battle,” said Hoffman, an accountant who began his campaign as an utter unknown but finished as the hero of what John Gizzi of Human Events called a nationwide “crusade” by conservatives.
Like Hoffman, conservatives are in a fighting mood and in the 23rd District campaign, they demonstrated a willingness to fight — and win — against a GOP establishment that showed its political tone-deafness by picking Scozzafava for the nomination and then spending a reported $900,000 on her doomed campaign.
“There were two fights here,” Hoffman press aide Sandy Caligiore said after the candidate’s wee-hours concession speech. “We won one and we lost one.”
Republicans who supported Scozzafava, including Newt Gingrich, had warned that the Hoffman campaign risked electing a Democrat in a district that had sent Republicans to Congress since before the Civil War. They will likely rush to claim vindication, but the fight that conservatives waged for Hoffman has not ended with this one battle.
Erick Erickson, whose Red State blog helped lead the online brigade of Hoffman’s grassroots army, declared the 23rd District result a “huge win for conservatives.”
The Hoffman campaign “demonstrated to the GOP that it must not take conservatives for granted.… The GOP had better pay attention,” Erickson said, indicating the next key target in the conservative fight against the Republican establishment.
“For all intents and purposes, NY-23 is a trial run for Florida.… If John Cornyn and the NRSC do not want to see Florida go the way of NY-23, they better stand down,” Erickson said.
That message was aimed at the Texas senator who, as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, endorsed Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in next year’s Senate race more than a year ahead of the August 2010 primary. Conservatives have rallied to the insurgent campaign of Marco Rubio, the former speaker of the state House.
Unlike the unusual New York special election — where GOP insiders picked Scozzafava without voter input — the Florida Senate race will give conservatives a chance to fight the establishment head-on in a Republican primary. The NRSC’s premature choice of Crist is already looking like a bad bet, and the conservative defiance of GOP leadership that drove the Hoffman campaign may once more prove its potency in Florida.
In conceding defeat, Hoffman said his campaign had proved that ordinary citizens could “fight back” against the establishment. “You don’t have to be polished. You don’t have to be poised. You don’t have to be a rock star,” he said. “Stand up and fight back.”
Hoffman was willing to fight, and whatever the future may hold for him, his willingness to stand up against the Republican establishment has already made him a hero.