GOP learned wrong lessons in New York race

Republicans thought that driving moderate Dede Scozzafava into arms of Democrats was a good thing

Published November 10, 2009 5:55PM (EST)

When Dede Scozzafava, then the Republican nominee, dropped out of a congressional race in upstate New York last month, conservatives celebrated. And why not? Victory looked imminent for their chosen candidate, Doug Hoffman, and the whole affair seemed to confirm their basic idea of how ideological conflict works: Be assertive enough, and you will get your way. You know -- “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

Of course, Hoffman didn’t win. Instead, after dropping out, Scozzafava helped deliver the race to Democrat Bill Owens with a well-timed endorsement of her former opponent. In an interview written up in Tuesday's Washington Post, she tells the story of leaving the race and throwing it to the Democrat. The piece reads like a morality play aimed at a wayward GOP.

After a wave of hostile -- often nastily so -- coverage from right-wing media and attacks from Republicans like Sarah Palin, Dick Armey and George Pataki (who had encouraged her to run), Scozzafava decided to leave the race. National Republicans were obviously relieved to be rid of her, and made that clear, getting in a few final kicks after she was down. Then, although Hoffman apparently expected her endorsement, he didn’t bother to call after she dropped out.

But Owens did call to offer his condolences. At the behest of the White House, so did New York Attorney General Andy Cuomo, who talked with Scozzafava about his own political humiliation in 2002, when he withdrew from the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination after it became clear he would lose. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and even former President Bill Clinton sought out Scozzafava as well.

Obviously, Cuomo, Schumer and the rest of the Democratic apparatus were acting out of self-interest, not just old-fashioned good-neighborliness. They wanted her endorsement. But that’s just the point; the GOP has been acting like it can win by doing what feels good. Meanwhile, the Democrats have gone about the actual work of coalition building, and it paid off with a seat in Congress.

Meanwhile, back in upstate New York, Scozzafava has been demoted from her GOP leadership position in the State Assembly, and is being courted to switch parties. This, of course, in a 150-member legislative body in which the Republicans control only 40 seats.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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