Last year, New York's 23rd Congressional district captured the nation's attention briefly when its representative's appointment to the Defense Department forced a special election. In what was arguably the first real test of tea-partry power, local conservatives repudiated the Republican candidate selected by county party bosses, the allegedly too-liberal Dede Scozzafava, and rallied behind Conservative party candidate Doug Hoffman. Despite nationwide publicity from the right-wing media, Hoffman's independent campaign fell short, and Democrat Bill Owens won the formerly Republican district.
Defying the national trend, Owens was re-elected to a full term yesterday after a campaign that may have revealed NY23 as the epicenter of conservative dysfunction. The trouble began before the primaries, when the Conservatives again endorsed Hoffman, but Republican county leaders again rejected him, this time in favor of Matt Doheny. Hoffman duly challenged Doheny in the Republican primary (there was no time for a primary the year before), but despite his celebrity in conservative circles, he reportedly waged a surprisingly weak campaign. In September, Doheny won the primary. Hoffman had the Conservative line and could not be taken off; unlike onetime Conservative gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, Hoffman had no judgeship to run for as a consolation prize, so under New York rules the Conservatives were stuck with him, even after Hoffman endorsed Doheny in October.
Despite publicly disavowing his campaign and endorsing the Republican, Hoffman received more than 7,000 votes yesterday, more than the margin separating Doheny from Owens. In the aftermath of this local disaster, Doheny has accused Hoffman of supporting him too little and too late, while Hoffman blames the GOP leadership for again rejecting him way back in January. In his view, once the Republicans realized that Hoffman would have the Conservative line, they should have played ball and given him their endorsement before the primary. That reasoning didn't work for Rick Lazio's supporters and it didn't work for Hoffman. Now, the disappointed Conservative for all intents and purposes repudiates independent politics, calling on Conservatives and Republicans to work together when there's no automatic reason for them to do so.
My understanding when I learned of Hoffman's withdrawal last month was that Doheny was considered at least a more conservative Republican than the accursed Scozzafava. He may still have been insufficiently conservative for Hoffman's die-hard fans, but their votes yesterday may also have been a protest against the local GOP establishment, who obviously hold some kind of grudge against Hoffman. Many Hoffman voters may have decided that representation by a Democrat who's reportedly a personal friend of Bill O'Reilly (and whom O'Reilly reportedly said he'd vote for if he lived in the district) was less obnoxious than dictation from an unrepresentative Republican leadership.
As we see Republicans and conservatives maneuvering for position in the race for a presidential nomination, we'll want to keep an eye on personal rivalries as well as ideological disagreements, as well as the ways they feed each other. The personal apparently was political in the 23rd district, and it put the local right wing at the back of the class of 2010 when they seemed to be the vanguard in 2009.