How to succeed in elections without really winning

To listen to some conservatives, you'd think they wanted their chosen candidate in one race to lose all along

Published November 4, 2009 5:01PM (EST)

Just this past weekend, conservative activists were basking in the glow of victory. Dissatisfied with the local Republican Party's choice of a candidate in a special election to fill a Congressional seat in upsate New York, one Dede Scozzafava, they'd successfully wooed over some of the GOP's biggest names and then managed to drive Scozzafava from the race in favor of their favorite, third-party candidate Doug Hoffman.

Then, on Tuesday, the news wasn't so good: Hoffman, even with the backing of the Republican establishment newly granted to him, lost to Bill Owens, a Democrat who'd gone all but unnoticed in the commotion.

No matter, though. Because despite their candidate's ultimate defeat, some of the conservatives who'd been pushing hardest for Hoffman are still claiming victory.

RedState's Erick Erickson, who was instrumental in Hoffman's rise, had this to say shortly after the race was called for Owens:

This is a huge win for conservatives.

“Whaaaa. . . ?” you say.

There are two big victories at work in New York’s 23rd Congressional District.

First, the GOP now must recognize it will either lose without conservatives or will win with conservatives. In 2008, many conservatives sat home instead of voting for John McCain. Now, in NY-23, conservatives rallied and destroyed the Republican candidate the establishment chose.

I have said all along that the goal of activists must be to defeat Scozzafava. Doug Hoffman winning would just be gravy. A Hoffman win is not in the cards, but we did exactly what we set out to do — crush the establishment backed GOP candidate .... So we have demonstrated to the GOP that it must not take conservatives for granted.

Erickson also used the opportunity to make a threat related to another conservative upstart whose cause he's championing -- former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who's taking on Gov. Charlie Crist in a Senate primary.

"For all intents and purposes, NY-23 is a trial run for Florida," Erickson wrote. "And in Florida, the conservative candidate is operating inside the GOP. If John Cornyn and the NRSC do not want to see Florida go the way of NY-23, they better stand down."

On her blog, Michelle Malkin had similar thoughts, writing:

Hoffman may have lost narrowly, but NY-23 is a much broader victory for conservatives who believe the Republican Party should stand for core limited government principles ....This is a victory of principle.

Better a donkey in office that acts like a donkey than a donkey in elephant’s clothing making a complete ass of the GOP.

Moreover, NY-23 is a victory for conservatives who refuse to be marginalized in the public square by either the unhinged left or the establishment right. A humble accountant from upstate New York exposed the hypocrisy of GOP leaders trying to solicit funds from conservatives by lambasting Pelosi and the Dems’ support for high taxes, Big Labor, and bigger government — while using conservatives’ money to subsidize a high-taxing, Big Labor-pandering, bigger government radical. The repercussions will be felt well beyond NY-23’s borders. Conservatives’ disgust with the status quo has been heard and felt. They have been silent too long. They will be silent no more.

It's easy to mock these sorts of reactions, and many liberals are doing so. It's also easy for liberals to celebrate their opponents' hard-headedness, hoping it will lead to more trouble for the Republican Party in the future. And that may well happen. But it's probably too early to write off the Ericksons and Malkins of the world completely -- once, the right was doing the same when it came to bloggers on the left like DailyKos' Markos Moulitsas. But now those forces have contributed to the Democratic Party's resurgence. Granted, Moulitsasa and company were working on a party that was much closer to the center than today's GOP, and that gave them an advantage, but there's still the chance that lightning could strike twice.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

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2009 Elections Doug Hoffman Republican Party War Room