Local lessons

On a recent conference call to conservative activists, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint told listeners, “All of you all over the country — please remember that Senate seats are not about a particular state. They’re about our country. Every vote I take is not about South Carolina. It’s about the United States of America.”

That’s not a bad message for party activists, who are asked to contribute to candidates outside of their own home regions or states. That’s how you motivate someone from, say, Mobile, Ala., to give to a candidate in upstate New York, or Florida, or Ohio. Yet in their pursuit of ideological homogeneity, DeMint and his conservative allies are forgetting that voters don’t vote for ideological purity — they vote for the candidates they believe will best represent them.

After all, as Tip O’Neill famously reminded young pols, “All politics is local.” Candidates who forget that simple axiom inevitably face trouble on Election Day.

That was clearly forgotten in the special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district. Republicans had a surefire winner in state Sen. Dede Scozzafava, but conservative activists rallied around true believer Doug Hoffman on a third-party line. Unfortunately for them, Hoffman wasn’t from the district, and clearly had no interest in learning anything about it.

In an hourlong interview with the editorial board of the Watertown Daily Times, a key newspaper in the district, Hoffman demonstrated gross ignorance of the issues that drove the people he wanted to represent. “Regarding the proposed rooftop highway across the top of the district linking Watertown to Plattsburgh, Mr. Hoffman said only that he was open to studying the idea that has been around for years and will require federal financial assistance to complete,” wrote the editorial board in a blistering editorial. “Mr. Hoffman had no opinion about winter navigation and widening the St. Lawrence Seaway with their potential environmental damage. He was not familiar with the repercussions of a proposed federal energy marketing agency for the Great Lakes, which could pay for Seaway expansion contrary to district interests.”

Hoffman was angry that he’d be asked such mundane questions, when he’d likely prefer to talk about Glenn Beck’s latest conspiracy theories. “A flustered and ill-at-ease Mr. Hoffman objected to the heated questioning, saying he should have been provided a list of questions he might be asked,” continued the editorial. “He was, if he had taken the time to read the Thursday morning Times editorial raising the very same questions.” But the kicker was when former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), chaperoning Hoffman at the meeting, interjected, derisively waving off talk of local highways and river navigation as “parochial” — as if “parochial” wasn’t in a congressman’s job description.

The party holding the White House generally loses seats during the new president’s first midterm elections: an average loss of 16 House seats, 5.5 governorships and 217.5 state legislative seats, according to an analysis by The Cook Political Report. A competent GOP would certainly be on pace to pick up those seats, but its efforts are being hamstrung by a teabagging movement that now wants to impose on candidates a litmus test so strict that Ronald Reagan would’ve failed it, while dismissing “parochial” concerns that win votes.

DeMint has said he’d prefer 30 conservative Republicans in the Senate than 60 who “don’t have a set of beliefs.” But when he talks about “beliefs,” he’s not talking about the stuff local voters care about, but of the regressive dogmatic conservatism that can get you elected in South Carolina and few places else.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com).