Conservative rebound

This is nothing new, but this year’s off-year contests may prove even more significant than those that have taken place in the past and stand as stark proof of the fact that in politics, a year can be a lifetime. Last year at this time, Barack Obama and Democrats everywhere were ecstatic as voters abandoned Republican candidates wherever they could be found. After the election, the “experts” began wondering once again if the GOP could ever come back or even survive in ObamaWorld.

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As after previous defeats, some Republicans and even a few so-called conservatives were speculating that the problem wasn’t Republican performance, but the conservative belief in limited government. One Republican governor with an eye on the White House even echoed The New York Times’s house conservative in calling for Republicans to “get over” Reagan.

We were told that the nation had entered a new political era and Democrats could expect victory after victory in states that had heretofore been considered Republican strongholds. Chief among such states was Virginia, which we were told had moved from red to purple and perhaps finally to blue. This would be ratified this year when Democrats would sweep the constitutional offices and take control of the Legislature.

A year later, Republicans are secretly praying for a sweep tonight in Virginia and New Jersey. It’s now the GOP that’s looking at taking all of Virginia’s constitutional offices and gaining as many as 10 or 12 seats in a legislature that was forecast to be lost to the Democrats for a decade or more.

Virginia this morning seems to be in the bag, and in spite of the president’s last-minute campaigning in New Jersey on behalf of a man who bought the state once and is trying to do it again, there is a better-than-even chance that New Jersey voters could send Gov. Jon Corzine packing. If they do, it will be the first time since 1993 that a Republican sweep in the off-year foretold a historic conservative national sweep in a Democratic president’s midterm election.

Just before last fall’s elections, my wife and I visited Bob Novak, who by that time was in fairly bad shape. As we discussed the upcoming vote, Bob began to chuckle and said, “My Democratic friends are so happy they seem to think they’ve died and gone to heaven. If they’d been around as long as I have, though, they’d realize first that it ain’t heaven and that, second, they won’t get to stay forever.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Which brings us to New York. Two months ago few would have suggested that a special election deep in the Adirondacks would attract as much attention as major-league contests in Virginia and New Jersey, but that was before the Republican establishment decided to nominate a candidate The Weekly Standard described as possibly the most liberal candidate ever nominated by the GOP.

The reaction among Republican voters in New York’s 23rd district and activists around the country set the party establishment back on its heels. National conservatives and Republicans from Fred Thompson to Tim Pawlenty, Sarah Palin to Mike Pence, lined up behind the Conservative Party candidate, who at first was dismissed as a spoiler.

The GOP establishments in New York and Washington rallied to the defense of “their” candidate, liberal Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, by dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into her campaign, attacking conservative Doug Hoffman and threatening anyone who dared break with the party. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) blew his cork at a conservative gathering and the party trotted out Newt Gingrich to attack fellow conservatives as “immature.”

Once Hoffman’s poll numbers made it clear to district voters that this successful businessman was real, Scozzafava’s numbers collapsed, former New York Gov. George Pataki endorsed Hoffman — a signal that the New York establishment was throwing in the towel — and Scozzafava dropped out to endorse the Democrat.

No one knows how things will end up tonight. Hoffman and his Democratic opponent were in a statistical tie late last week, but regardless of the final vote, the New York and national GOP establishments have been sent a strong signal that limited government is still the party baseline and that true believers working together have incredible power. Who’d have thunk it?


Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.