Gingrich defends endorsement as 'practical choice'

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is defending his endorsement of a centrist Republican in New York after the pick landed him in hot water with conservative activists.

Last week, Gingrich became one of a small handful of conservatives who endorsed Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R) in her bid to fill Army Secretary John McHugh's now-vacant House seat. As a result, conservative bloggers said Gingrich had eliminated himself from contention for the GOP's presidential nomination in 2012.

"My endorsement of Dede Scozzafava in the special election for New York’s 23rd congressional district is a means of regaining a conservative majority in America," Gingrich wrote in a statement on his website. "Although some of her values do not match my own, Scozzafava will help us in our efforts to win back Congress."

House GOP strategists are privately, but visibly, frustrated with Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman's candidacy. Recent public polls have showed Hoffman rising at Scozzafava's expense, raising fears that the Republican base will be split enough to hand the seat to attorney Bill Owens (D).

As a prelude to the 1994 elections, in which Gingrich's Contract with America helped propel Republicans to a majority in the House for the first time in 40 years, several centrist Republicans won elections in 1993, including Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Now, Gingrich says, Republicans face a similar choice: Elect centrist Republicans, or hand a victory to Democrats — a loss for the GOP that could have an impact on recruiting in advance of the 2010 elections.

"The choice in New York is a practical one: We can split the conservative vote and guarantee the election of a Democrat in a Republican seat in a substantial loss of opportunity. Or we can find a way to elect someone who has committed to vote for the Republican leader, has committed to vote against all tax increases, has committed to vote against cap-and-trade, and is a strong ally of the NRA," Gingrich wrote.

"My number one interest is to build a Republican majority. If your interest is taking power back from the Left, and your interest is winning the necessary elections, then there are times when you have to put together a coalition that has disagreement within it," he added.

In an appearance on Laura Ingraham's radio show on Thursday, Gingrich lambasted conservative groups outside the district for aiding Hoffman, who finished far down the roster when Republican Party chairmen in New York picked Scozzafava.

"I'd hate to see a split that gives that seat to the Democrats," Gingrich said on Ingraham's show. "We'll have a real chance to make 2010 and 2012 historic years, but we're not going to do it if our primary job is fighting ourselves."

Gingrich is not the only Republican to take heat for backing Scozzafava over Hoffman. After House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) pointedly refused to endorse Scozzafava, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) asked Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), a leading conservative, to endorse her.

Hensarling's endorsement won headlines, but conservative activists attacked him for the pick. Hensarling has refused to comment, repeatedly declining interview requests on the matter.

Meanwhile, many conservatives have backed Hoffman. The Club for Growth has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Hoffman's behalf, while former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and evangelical leader Gary Bauer have offered their support. On Thursday, Hoffman toured the district with former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).