In the beginning, there was the 23rd district of New York. Sarah Palin shook up a 2009 special election in that district – left vacant when Obama appointed Republican John McHugh secretary of the Army – by endorsing conservative Doug Hoffman. The accountant who lived outside the district and who ran on the Conservative Party line had been discarded by local Republican leaders in favor of moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava.
Hoffman, supported by a flood of outside money, proved to be a spoiler. When it became clear that he was splitting the Republican vote, Scozzafava dropped out and endorsed the Democrat in the race, Bill Owens. He went on to win the seat. Scozzafava endorsed him again this year and Bill Clinton even swung through the 23rd to help get out the Democratic vote. According to the Watertown Daily Times, Owens will win. He has about 73,000 votes right now to Republican challenger Matt Doheny’s 68,000, thanks largely to Doug Hoffman, who backed out this year’s race too late to get his name off the ballot. He’s likely to wrack up nearly 10,000 votes this time. North Country Public Radio’s liveblog says supporters at Doheny headquarters are calling Hoffman “all kinds of names” tonight.
That the voters of NY-23 are sending Bill Owens back to Congress because of Hoffman’s unsuccessful efforts once again isn’t the whole story, however. Even though Hoffman lost in 2009, he helped spark a wave of Tea Party excitement that’s making significant high-profile gains tonight. In her 2009 endorsement, Palin wrote on her Facebook page that Hoffman’s appeal was that he had “not been anointed by any political machine,” an apt preview of a recent Politico report that Palin’s continued ascendancy is terrifying the national GOP establishment in 2010. “Our nation is at a crossroads,” Palin wrote of Hoffman in 2009, “And this is once again a ‘time for choosing.’”
Will the GOP be glad that they are choosing this this? Tonight, aside from NY-23 and a handful of other races, absolutely. Tea Party support is propelling the Republicans to a resounding election night victory that will hand them control of the House. Although Republicans will not gain a majority in the Senate, they are making big gains. In Kentucky, Rand Paul rode what he called a “Tea Party tidal wave” to soundly defeat Democrat Jack Conway; Marco Rubio of Florida cruised to victory over Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meeks. Nikki Haley, who earned one of the first Palin endorsements of this cycle, beat her Democratic opponent.
Meanwhile, Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell, an admittedly very flawed candidate, was destroyed by Democrat Chris Coons. (“The Republican Party will never be the same and that’s a good thing,” O’Donnell said in her concession speech, “This is just the beginning.”) As more returns trickle in, we’ll see if the ultimate Tea Party candidate – Sharon Angle in Nevada, running against Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – emerges victorious. We’ll also find out if Joe Miller, a Palin-backed Tea Party favorite in Alaska, can beat establishment (and write-in) Republican Lisa Murkowski; Miller’s been lagging in recent polls.
As many others have already noted, Tea Party candidates who arrive in Congress – ideological purity in hand – next year could create some management challenges for GOP leaders. If and when Mitch McConnell and John Boehner start pulling their hair out over an overly diverse caucus, they might think of Doug Hoffman – and Sarah Palin. Ditto if McConnell and Boehner can dramatically shift the national political conversation in their favor – and further damage Obama in the process – thanks to a much redder House and Senate in 2011.