Dismal special election record could hamper Republicans' 2010 comeback

The GOP could lose its fifth of five big special elections in two years — a development that has Republicans asking why the irregular races continue to bedevil their party, even as it rebounds in other ways.

Some say Republicans haven’t learned from their losses in three conservative districts last year, nor from an upstate New York special election in March.

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Now the party’s focus is on next Tuesday’s special election in New York, to see if it can hold former Rep. John McHugh’s (R-N.Y.) seat.

Operatives with special-election experience blame a familiar problem that has reared its head: the ugly primary.

There technically weren’t any primaries in the race, but Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman did seek the GOP nomination from party leaders before going the third-party route. He is now threatening to overtake GOPer Dede Scozzafava in the polls.

As National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) chairman last year, Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.) saw three primary losers refuse to back their opponents, who all went on to lose with fractured bases.



“I understand some of the tensions that are there” in New York, Cole said. “But you basically have a primary taking place in the context of a general election.”


Cole emphasized that such a thing won’t happen in a regular general election, which has a primary process. But others see something that could make its way into 2010.

GOP consultant Brian Donahue said Hoffman’s success in recent polling shows the ensuing battle between pragmatism and idealism that Republicans will face in many other races, including a few Senate races where big-name centrists face grassroots favorites.

“You’re seeing that fight come right out in this special election,” Donahue said. “Hoffman’s rise in support is symbolic of the growing pains the party is going through.”

Republican strategist Tyler Harber said the GOP has yet to rebuild its image, and it’s getting a taste of the side effects.

“The base has fragmented as Republicans still face significant morale issues,” said Harber, who is working for special election candidate David Harmer (R) in California. Harmer’s race is the same day — Nov. 3 — as the New York race, but hasn’t lured much national involvement.

In New York, Hoffman is still third in the last two independent public polls on the race, at 23 percent. But he is sneaking up on GOP candidate Scozzafava, who is around 30 percent, while Democrat Bill Owens is now the favorite in the mid-30s.

National Republicans insist they will continue fighting on Scozzafava’s behalf, but with her numbers on the decline and the calculus looking unfriendly, many are preparing to explain a loss.

It’s a familiar process for the GOP. Last year, the party lost conservative seats in Illinois (former Speaker Dennis Hastert’s seat), Louisiana (former Rep. Richard Baker’s seat) and Mississippi (Sen. Roger Wicker’s former House seat).

Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) was the last big special-election winner for the party, in June 2006. The parties also invested modestly in a race in Ohio in late 2007, with the GOP holding the seat.

A source from Bilbray’s campaign said, even then, the national party was often in the way.

“We felt that we won in spite of the NRCC and RNC [Republican National Committee],” the source said. “That’s not to say the things they are doing aren’t valuable. But something is not being done right if we’re not winning these elections.”

And the GOP is still grumbling about the March special election in New York’s 20th district, where Republican State Assembly leader Jim Tedisco lost to Democrat Rep. Scott Murphy by less than 1 percent.

“The NRCC shows up at these things with their one-size-fits-all playbook,” the consultant said. “The same people who screwed up New York-20 are screwing up New York-23.”

National Republicans point out that Republicans didn’t steal any Democratic seats in 1993, before they took two the following year and retook the House. The 20th district would have been a takeover, while McHugh’s 23rd would not.

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NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay pointed out that both seats Republicans have pursued in New York were won by President Barack Obama.

“They’re still examples of how far we’ve come in closing the gap,” Lindsay said. “This seat is obviously very competitive, but it’s complicated by the fact that it’s a three-person race.”

David Wasserman, a House race analyst with The Cook Political Report, said the party continues to struggle with picking the right candidate. After all four previous losses, the party’s nominee has been attacked for having the wrong profile or being a poor candidate.

“Republicans have erred in assessing what voters were looking for — especially what independents are looking for,” Wasserman said. “The Democrats went through this for a long time too, after 1994.”

GOP sources said the nomination of Scozzafava, who would be one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress, represents a ham-handed attempt at re-creating the Democrats’ strategy.

The majority party got that way by running conservative Democrats in many districts. And with Republicans suffering major losses in the Northeast, Scozzafava’s candidacy was seen as a potential uniting force that would draw in independents.

“There may have been an overreaction to the perception that Tedisco was the party insiders’ choice, as well as the perception that other recent Republican candidates were too conservative,” said a GOP source familiar with the special elections.

Cole acknowledged that his nominee in the Louisiana special election, former Senate candidate Woody Jenkins, was thrust upon him. But he said there is too much Monday morning quarterbacking going on when it comes to the specials, and the national party doesn’t have as much say as many people think.

“The NRCC, to some degree, is trapped in the situation that they’re in right now in New York-23,” Cole said. “They have to play the hand that was dealt them.”