By Reid Wilson - 10/15/09 10:05 AM EDT
The House GOP conference is bitterly divided over a centrist New York Republican’s run for the House seat vacated by Army Secretary John McHugh.
Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, who backs abortion rights and has voiced support for gay rights, has drawn a challenger from the right who is running on the Conservative Party line. And though House leaders have urged conference members to donate, many have pointedly refused to back Scozzafava.
The divide could foreshadow bigger troubles ahead for a party that hopes to make big gains in the House in 2010 and dreams of taking back the majority. Some members think that will be impossible as long as the party is divided over supporting centrist candidates.
“The Hoffman campaign is a real revolt against the Republican establishment and leadership, not just in New York but nationally,” said a conservative GOP congressman, adding that Scozzafava’s candidacy “could set off a civil war inside the Republican Party.”
Just 17 members — about 10 percent of the GOP conference — have written checks to Scozzafava’s campaign. They include House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is in charge of recruiting candidates to run next year.
Notably absent from that list is Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), the Republican Conference chairman. Pence, the former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, has refused to endorse Scozzafava.
“I don’t think this is an NRCC problem. This is a much broader Republican problem,” said the conservative lawmaker, who requested anonymity when discussing internal Republican politics. “The inability of the Republican coalition to coalesce is going to be a huge challenge for us in 2010."
In an effort to prove Scozzafava can attract conservatives, Sessions pushed Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) to step up and endorse her. After his announcement, Hensarling took shots from some prominent conservative blogs and media outlets, with some going so far as to lob unfounded charges about Hensarling’s personal life.
Leadership aides blame those incidents on Pence, and say his decision not to endorse Scozzafava harms cohesion.
“It breaks down the leadership team when we all can’t be together,” one leadership aide said. “When you see a good guy like Jeb Hensarling step into the fray to take that bullet, you kind of scratch your head and say, ‘Do we really want a Republican majority, or are we in it for something else here?’ ”
Hensarling declined to be interviewed about his endorsement of Scozzafava. A spokesman said he had nothing to add to his statement, issued last Friday.
A second GOP congressman said his party’s leaders should be glad to welcome a female candidate with the background to win a district in a part of the country where Republican strength has declined.
“It’s hard to fathom that anyone in our elected leadership, especially after the past two election cycles in the Northeast, would be so tepid in supporting adding another woman to the House Republican Conference,” the congressman said.
But others defend Pence’s decision to stay out of the race. The conservative House GOP member said Scozzafava’s positions put her so far out of the Republican mainstream that, were she to win, she could do damage to the entire party’s brand.
“A lot of people in the conference are having a hard time [supporting Scozzafava]. This is somebody who’s for the stimulus package, for cap-and-trade, for card-check,” the conservative said. “We’re on the verge of losing that race up there because we’ve got a candidate who can’t hold the Republican coalition together.”
A Pence spokesman refused to comment on his decision not to back Scozzafava.
Don Seymour, a Boehner spokesman, did not indicate his boss saw any friction within party leadership.
“We’re pleased with the support Dede has received from leadership and members of the conference,” Seymour said.
A spokesman for Scozzafava’s campaign said it is happy with the support it has received.
“On Election Day, we’re going to be in a position to win this race,” said Matt Burns, a campaign spokesman.
On Wednesday, 11 House Republican women hosted a lunch for Scozzafava. And Wednesday night, most of the House GOP leadership, including Boehner, Cantor, McCarthy, Sessions, conference Vice Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) and conference Secretary John Carter (Texas) hosted a fundraiser for Scozzafava at the home of ex-Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.).
Scozzafava was nominated by the chairmen of the local county party, and is competing for a district with about 46,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. However, it gave President Barack Obama 52 percent of the vote in 2008.