Hoffman worries some incumbents

The ascendance of the Conservative Party nominee in a New York special election suggests that some centrist candidates may be at risk to conservative challengers, strategists and members of Congress said this weekend.

Businessman Doug Hoffman, running on the Conservative Party line, has seen his support surge in recent weeks. On Saturday, Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, the Republican nominee in the district, said she is suspending her campaign, and national party leaders rushed to back Hoffman.

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Strategists said the new developments are a shot in the arm for the conservative wing of the GOP, which may be emboldened to launch primary challenges to anointed favorites and even members of Congress who do not conform sufficiently to the Republican platform.

"Conservatives will be energized to take back the Republican Party and moderates will be looking over their shoulders for the next year," said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations at the Heritage Foundation. "Moderate incumbents worried about the next election may have to tack to the right to avoid a primary battle."

Many used the race to take a shot at national party leaders, who backed Scozzafava even though she was nominated by local county officials in New York. Still, the backlash against Scozzafava is the latest in a continuing trend of conservatives expressing frustration with what they see as candidates who are too centrist.

Rubio is winning straw polls around Florida, while Crist is emphasizing his conservative credentials. In New Hampshire, former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte (R) was scrutinized by Republicans who tried to recruit several conservatives to challenge her, though that pressure has abated as Ayotte has enumerated her positions.

"It clearly means populist conservatism is ascendant," said Craig Shirley, a Republican consultant and author of Rendevous with Destiny, a new biography of Ronald Reagan. Shirley said some Republicans should "say gentle prayers tonight" and purchase a new copy of Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative.

John Yob, a Republican strategist in Michigan, cited former Florida House speaker Marco Rubio (R), an insurgent conservative who has made the national party's favored candidate, Gov. Charlie Crist (R).

"We are likely to see challenges across the country with more conservative candidates invigorated by Hoffman and the rise of Rubio," Yob said.

Others said the anger at Scozzafava, a liberal Republican who backed same-sex marriage rights and had close ties to organized labor, is actually a reflection of an increasingly decentralized party. Conservative voters are more likely to identify themselves as independents, they said, and they are nearly as angry with Washington Republicans as they are with Democratic majorities and President Barack Obama.

Hoffman's rise "points to the rise of Independents and the continued loosening of partisan control. Both parties have approval ratings under 30 percent, and voters are not just saying they are tired of politics as usual, they are backing it up by supporting independent candidates with whom they feel more personally aligned," said Bo Harmon, a veteran micro-targeting expert.

One Republican congressman, who asked not to be named discussing party dynamics, said without Hoffman's rise, conservatives may have turned their fire on their own party's incumbents. The conservative movement, the congressman said, is "trumping" the rest of the party.

"Because Hoffman is not aligned with any major party, he is a fresh face for these independent conservatives, while Scozzafava epitomizes everything that is wrong with the Republican establishment," said Chris Perkins, a GOP pollster.

That means that Republicans who argue centrist candidates are the only ones who can win in the Northeast are still a minority in the party.

"The first battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party during the rule of President Obama was won by the conservatives. This is a sign that conservatives can beat back moderates who argue that only liberal party members can win in the Northeast," Darling said. Support for Hoffman from several leading presidential contenders "evidences a shift in the leaders of the Republican Party to support the conservative candidate, even when that candidate is not the Republican nominee."

"Now is the time for Republicans to realize that returning to our principles of smaller government, lower taxes, traditional values and more freedom is not only the right thing to do, it will pay huge dividends at the ballot box," added Sean Noble, a GOP consultant in Arizona. "If party leaders had half a brain they'd jump out in front of this mob and call it a parade."