A vote for fill-in-the-blank conservative third-party candidate — be it Bob Barr, Chuck Baldwin, or Pat Buchanan — is a vote for the Democrats. This argument has kept many a disgruntled conservative on the Republican reservation, no matter how hard they had to hold their nose in November.
For it wasn’t John McCain, George W. Bush, or his father who rallied the conservative faithful to pull the Republican lever as much as Barack Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Michael Dukakis. In each case, some additional incentive was provided in the form of running mates Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney, and Dan Quayle (imagine trying to get out the conservative vote with McCain-Lieberman or Bush-Ridge). But fear of the Democrats has been employed successfully on behalf of Republicans as liberal as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lincoln Chafee, and Arlen Specter — only the first of whom remains in the GOP today — who were sometimes just millimeters to the right of their Democratic opponents.
Whether or not Doug Hoffman wins next Tuesday’s special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district, that argument may sound a lot less persuasive to conservatives because of his candidacy. Sarah Palin, the GOP’s 2008 vice-presidential nominee, has endorsed Hoffman over the liberal Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava. So have Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Republican ex-senators turned presidential prospects Fred Thompson and Rick Santorum.
Sitting members of Congress have also crossed party lines to support the Conservative Party nominee over the Republican: Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Reps. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, Todd Tihart of Kansas, and Dana Rohrabacher of California. Cole, a former political consultant, chaired the House Republicans’ national campaign committee during the 2008 election cycle.
In 2012, Republican presidential contenders who stuck with the GOP nominee — or stayed neutral like Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee — may find their party loyalty as popular among primary voters as Gerald Ford’s support for the Panama Canal Treaty was in his 1976 fight with Ronald Reagan. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has already faced nearly as much criticism for his persistence in backing Scozzafava as Hillary Clinton got from Democratic primary voters for her refusal to repent of her Iraq war vote.
Conservatives are deserting Scozzafava in droves, ignoring warnings that their independence could swing the seat to the Democrats. This is true not just national activist groups like the Club for Growth and Eagle Forum, but also — if the polls are any indication — grassroots voters in the 23rd district. “NY-23” has emerged as a conservative rallying cry.
The situation is unusual. Scozzafava is not just pro-choice and liberal on other social issues, but also economically liberal and in favor of increasing union power through card check. New York allows candidates to appear on multiple party ballot lines and thus has a viable state Conservative Party. Unlike most conservative third-party nominees, Hoffman is not a protest candidate or sure loser. The closest analogy is when Jim Buckley ran successfully for U.S. Senate in New York on the Conservative Party ballot line against liberal Democrat Richard Ottinger and liberal Republican Charles Goodell — with the tacit support of Republican President Richard Nixon.
Having bolted the Republican Party once, some disenchanted conservatives might find it a hard habit to break. Faced with an unprincipled GOP on the one hand and ineffectual third parties of the right on the other, Hoffman might show a third way: a conservative party that works in tandem with the Republicans when they nominate conservatives but runs its own candidates when the party of Reagan more closely resembles the party of Rockefeller. This could make conservatives the swing vote Republicans must pursue.
Doug Hoffman’s way isn’t the easy way, however. How conservative must a Republican be to win this hypothetical third party’s support? The Empire State Conservatives have been criticized for being too quick to give their ballot lines to Republicans. The national Constitution Party could nominate few Republicans not named Ron Paul. And what would such an arrangement do to Republicans like Rudy Giuliani who really are the only GOPers who could win in their home areas? (Though George Marlin’s Conservative Party candidacy didn’t keep Giuliani from being elected mayor in 1993, despite the former’s insistence that the only difference between Giuliani and David Dinkins was the way they parted their hair.) Canada’s experiment with two major parties of the right — the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform Party turned Canadian Alliance — ended in a merger.
New York is unique in allowing candidates to run on multiple party ballot lines. Most other states make it difficult to impossible for minor parties to compete, forcing them to spend all their time and energy navigating byzantine ballot-access requirements. By the time their nominees make the ballot, the campaign is already broke.
Yet Hoffman’s rebellion may reveal that the country’s conservative plurality is tuning out Republican leaders like Newt Gingrich and instead heeding the Democratic icon John F. Kennedy. Kennedy, after all, once said, “Sometimes party loyalty asks too much.”