Strange Brew: GOP war clouds comeback picture

By Gorman Gorman

Nov 2, 2009 8:17am

ABC News’ Rick Klein reports: We knew the road to 2010 ran through 2009 — but we didn’t know it had this particular (right) turn.

The war in New York’s 23rd congressional district claimed a casualty even before Tuesday’s election. That guarantees that the Republican Party’s power vacuum/identity crisis comes into full view this week — even though the party has a plausible shot at going 3-for-3 in the big contests.

It’s an intriguing secondary storyline that’s fast becoming the primary one — in honor of the many primaries to come it portends for the GOP next year.

Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman stands a strong shot at winning the seat for Republicans — though Republican Dede Scozzafava’s endorsement of Democrat Bill Owens (as encouraged by the White House) scrambles the coalitions and loyalties enough to keep this one interesting.

Already, the race marks a major victory for anxious conservatives who have little love for the party’s nominal powerbrokers. Tea-party fervor already kicked Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., out of the Republican Party, and next those same voices turn to Gov. Charlie Crist, R-Fla., in his Senate race.

There will be more primaries — and they won’t all produce candidates who are as likely to prevail as Doug Hoffman in upstate New York.

In this case, the establishment didn’t so much harness the grass-roots energy as it did get trampled by it; now the challenge is just holding on for the ride.

“The developments that put Republicans back in a stronger position to win a special House election on Tuesday will reverberate unpredictably far beyond the district’s boundaries,” Dan Balz writes in the Sunday Washington Post. “This was a classic case of the grass roots overrunning the leadership of the party, and it carries implications for the battles that will play out next year and beyond.”

“The message from national and New York conservatives is unambiguous,” Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Alex Isenstadt report. “This was an angry, energized base telling the national party that an anything-for-a-majority approach by GOP leaders is unacceptable. They are serious and deeply concerned about what’s going on in Washington.”

Vindication? “Not only was the conventional wisdom wrong, the idea that there’s a ‘civil war’ within the GOP revolving around this argument is nonsense,” Jonah Goldberg writes for National Review. “The GOP is an unapologetically conservative party, providing a choice not an echo, and — horror of horrors — it’s working.”

Should liberals root for a Democratic loss? “A Hoffman win could have implications for the Republican Senate primary in Florida, perhaps the 2012 nomination contest, and other races where Republicans have the choice between more ideologically correct (Marco Rubio, Sarah Palin) and more electable alternatives (Charlie Crist, Mitt Romney),” Nate Silver writes at

You really can’t do both: “Tuesday’s vote in New York’s 23rd congressional district, to fill the seat vacated by Army Secretary John McHugh, a Republican, has become a front line in the GOP’s growing internal debate over whether the best way to rebuild the party’s fortunes is to seek to energize voters by focusing on core principles or to reach out to independents by broadening the platform,” The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman and Naftali Bendavid write. Tough storyline when you want to just win the thing: “The gulf between the moderate and conservative factions of the Republican Party appeared to spread Sunday when the Republican former candidate in a contentious congressional race endorsed the Democrat,” James Oliphant writes for the Los Angeles Times.

This was brewing for a long while — but service for how many? “The conservative ‘tea party’ activists went to war with the establishment and won, but can they close the deal with a Hoffman victory? Or will the infighting hand the Democrats a House seat in a previously solid Republican district?” Kara Rowland reports in the Washington Times.

“This energy on the right seems to exist outside the control of the conventional political structure, and GOP politicians and operatives are as likely to be victims of this anger as beneficiaries,” Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Alex Isenstadt write.

Anyone else on the ballot in upstate New York? This race didn’t get really, really interesting until someone went rogue:

“Hoffman could well win, giving short-term succor to the GOP and [Sarah] Palin’s exclusionary, storm-the-barricades brand of Republicanism. And who knows when and where this will stop — or where it will lead?” Jill Lawrence writes for Politics Daily. “It has all the elements of a runaway train, and very few Republicans are willing to step in front of it.”

ABC’s John Berman was in the district for the wacky final weekend on the trail — and was the first to reach Hoffman after Sunday’s news broke: “I just informed Doug Hoffman that GOP’s Scozzafava endorsed his opponent. He hadn’t heard. Claims he is not discouraged,” Berman Tweeted.

The campaign told Berman he was mistaken, even after making a phone call to check. More to come, including exclusive interviews with both Owens and Hoffman, on “World News” Monday night.

How the endorsement went down: Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., “called other Democratic leaders about the situation, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel,” the Watertown Daily Times’ reports. “A Democratic source said that Scozzafava and her husband, Ronald P. McDougall, met with U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-Huntington, and state Democratic Committee Chairwoman June F. O’Neill at a restaurant in Gouverneur on Saturday afternoon to discuss the endorsement.”

Politico’s Martin and Charles Mahtesian: “When some senior Democrats worried Scozzafava might be wavering about the endorsement, according to another account, the White House got Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of the most powerful figures in the state, and New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to place calls to the assemblywoman on Saturday evening to coax her into delivering it. Sen. Charles Schumer, who had been in touch with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Israel, also weighed in.”

Vice President Joe Biden campaigns with Owens in Watertown at 10 am ET Monday — though no word yet on whether Scozzafava will be there, too.

One person who won’t be there: “Dede is entitled to her own opinion, as is everyone, but I obviously disagree with her decision,” Matt Burns, Scozzafava’s former campaign manager, tells The Hotline.

In the other big races — can the White House steal a victory in either one? “Tuesday will give a picture of public attitudes in certain places and measure which party has energy on its side heading into a high-stakes election year. Some questions will be at least answered partially,” the AP’s Liz Sidoti writes. 

“Among them: Did Obama’s campaigning in Virginia and New Jersey persuade the diverse voting coalition that lifted him to victory in 2008 to turn out for Democratic candidates in 2009? Did fickle independents stick with the Democratic Party? Did the out-of-power GOP overcome fissures within its ranks to find a winning strategy?”

The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney: “The outcome could, to a limited degree, help measure whether Mr. Obama’s success last year was a phenomenon limited to him or the early signs of a long-term Democratic resurgence. And it may offer a hint of the thinking of independent voters, the real swing group in American politics, who were so critical to Mr. Obama’s success and who polls suggested have been put off by Mr. Obama policies.”

RNC Chairman Michael Steele: “These are bellwether races — not just as a referendum on this administration, but on our party as well. . . . This administration is so out of step with the heartbeat of this country, and that’s going to be apparent on Tuesday. You’ve got a smiling chairman on the phone.”

The stakes at the White House… ABC’s Jake Tapper, on “Good Morning America” Monday: “You can tell how much the White House may be anticipating to have a bad day tomorrow by how much they’re already saying the results won’t say anything” about the president’s political standing.

In New Jersey, the president himself tried to answer some of the key questions Sunday. ABC’s Stephanie Sy: “Urging New Jersey voters to ‘vote like you did last year,’ Obama admitted, ‘here’s the tough part — here’s the time when it’s not as sexy, not as flashy, this is when governing comes in and we have to make tough choices and progress is not as quick as we want.’ ”

“New Jersey is their best chance for a win tomorrow night,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reported on “GMA.” “They want to avoid the sweep at all costs, because they’re afraid that will be seen as a verdict on the president’s first year, and could affect this debate over health care in the Congress.”

Q-poll numbers out Monday: “In the see-saw New Jersey Governor’s race, Republican challenger Christopher Christie has 42 percent to Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s 40 points, with 12 percent for independent candidate Christopher Daggett, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released today. Six percent remain undecided. This compares to a 43-38 percent Gov. Corzine lead, with 13 percent for Daggett, in an October 28 survey.”

“The New Jersey contest is attracting enormous attention, not only because of its closeness,” David W. Chen and David M. Halbfinger write for The New York Times. “The sputtering economy here (unemployment is 9.8 percent) has helped to depress Mr. Corzine’s poll numbers and created uneasiness among Democrats nationally about a state they have carried in presidential contests since 19 92. Republicans are likely to seize on a Corzine defeat as a sign that Mr. Obama’s policies are being rejected by the electorate, and argue that they will oust more endangered Democrats in 2010.”

“The White House is banking on Mr. Obama’s visit to boost Democratic turnout enough to put Mr. Corzine over the top — avoiding an embarrassing double-dose of defeat for Democrats in Tuesday’s governors contests, as Virginia looks poised to elect Republican Robert F. McDonnell just 12 months after Mr. Obama’s historic win there for president,” the Washington Times’ S.A. Miller reports.

In Virginia: “Republican Bob McDonnell appears poised to win the governorship and lead a GOP sweep Tuesday, ending nearly a decade of reverses for his party, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch Poll,” the Times-Dispatch’s Jeff E. Schapiro writes. “McDonnell is favored by 53 percent, while Democrat R. Creigh Deeds is preferred by 41 percent — a widened lead from an early October survey for the newspaper. Six percent are undecided in the latest poll.”

In New York City, new Quinnipiac numbers: “One day before the New York City Mayoral election, incumbent Michael Bloomberg leads Comptroller William Thompson 50-38 percent, with 10 percent undecided, among likely voters.”

A defense of third-party candidates, by Ross Douthat of The New York Times: “For anyone who wants to try, the time is now. This year has been a good year for independent candidates. Given the public mood these days, 2010 could be an even better one — and there will be a lot more than three offices up for grabs next fall.”

Watching with caution: “New England’s moderate Republicans, shoved out of power by two Democratic waves of anti-George W. Bush fervor, are scrambling to make a 2010 comeback, making early bids for congressional seats that GOP leaders say are critical to taking back majorities in the House and Senate,” Susan Milligan writes in The Boston Globe.

“We aren’t going to win back the majority without fighting hard in the Northeast, and we intend to do it,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, R- Texas, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Speaking of election issues … health care on the move.

“After months of plodding work by five Congressional committees and weeks of back-room bargaining by Democratic leaders, President Obama’s arms-length strategy on health care appears to be paying dividends, with the House and the Senate poised to take up legislation to insure nearly all Americans,” Robert Pear and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in The New York Times. “Democratic leaders and senior White House officials are sounding increasingly confident that Mr. Obama will sign legislation overhauling the nation’s health care system — a goal that has eluded American presidents for decades.”

But can this promise be kept? “Senior White House Counsel Valerie Jarrett told me this morning that the President will keep to his pledge not to tax the middle class to pass his health care package. ‘He’s confident that a bill will be passed consistent with his parameters,’ ” per ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “According to Republican Senator Charles Grassley, the Joint Tax Committee’s analysis shows taxes will go up for 46 million Americans making under $250,000 under the plan.”

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will seek a vote as early as this week while trying to pacify fellow Democrats who say her bill isn’t strong enough and others who fret that federal dollars might be used for abortions. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is waiting for cost estimates on his proposals while trying to win enough votes just to start debate,” Bloomberg’s Kristin Jensen and Laura Litvan report.

The Wall Street Journal editorial: “The Worst Bill Ever.”

From the other side: “Acknowledging they can’t stop the Senate from bringing up a health care reform bill, Republicans have mapped out a strategy to draw out the debate, attack the measure’s core components and force difficult votes on vulnerable Democrats,” Roll Call’s David M. Drucker reports.

“By unveiling their own legislation, Republicans will be able to coalesce around a concrete plan. But they also open themselves to potential criticism of their proposals,” The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Hitt reports.

On Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah’s withdrawal from the run-off election doesn’t complicate the president’s decision-making (and the run-off was formally cancelled Monday morning), but the decision may slip: “The President will make a decision when he is confident he has all the facts he needs,” Valerie Jarrett told George Stephanopoulos.

The president may be delaying his decision-making — but it’s not dithering, writes Bloomberg’s Al Hunt: “For former Vice President Dick Cheney, who wants to go all out for victory, or for Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who wants to get out as soon as possible, the right decision in Afghanistan is easy. President Barack Obama, and even some Republicans, wish it were that simple. The problem is many of the contentions and conclusions, on all sides, are oversimplified, even dubious.”

Friends like these: “President Obama now faces a new complication: enabling a badly tarnished partner to regain enough legitimacy to help the United States find the way out of an eight-year-old war,” David E. Sanger writes for The New York Times.

Remember that odd body language between Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., at the White House last month? Well, Pelosi said, it’s not him — it’s Afghanistan that made her cringe. “I was more reacting to what he was saying than his arm on my shoulder,” Pelosi told ABC’s Bill Weir, on “Good Morning America” Saturday.

On cap-and-trade — “almost no hope”: “The climate-change bill that has been moving slowly through the Senate will face a stark political reality when it emerges for committee debate on Tuesday: With Democrats deeply divided on the issue, unless some Republican lawmakers risk the backlash for signing on to the legislation, there is almost no hope for passage,” Juliet Eilperin reports in The Washington Post.

Launching Monday: a new national ad campaign from the Alliance for Climate Protection’s Repower America campaign. “Repower Voices” features Brent Scowcroft, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi, Ted Turner and Sheryl Crow, on national cable and broadcast TV. 

Also launching from the alliance: The Repower Wall.

Swamp tales: “The disclo sure in recent days of a sensitive document from the House ethics committee offers the contradictory portrait of a panel actively pursuing a range of probes even as Democrats under scrutiny remain in positions of power,” Paul Kane writes for The Washington Post. “The 22-page document revealed that the ethics committee, as of late July, was looking into the activities of at least 19 lawmakers, including reviews of home mortgages and interviews about corporate-backed trips for members of Congress to Caribbean resorts. Combined with the inquiries being conducted by a new ethics office, the document showed a far more robust set of investigations than previously revealed.”

Filling out the Palin bookshelf — all before the former governor goes rogue for real Nov. 17: “The first book hits stores Tuesday …. ‘Sarah from Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar,’ was written by Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe, television reporters who followed Palin on the presidential campaign trail last fall,” McClatchy’s Erika Bolstad writes.

“Next up, on Nov. 12, a book with a more right-wing bent: ‘The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star,’ by Matthew Continetti of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine. Then, on the same day Palin’s own book publishes, comes a book of left-leaning essays, ‘Going Rouge: An American Nightmare.’ The book, with its parody title and strikingly similar cover art, was put together by two senior editors at The Nation magazine and will be available only on the Web site of its publisher, OR Books.”

The Kicker:

“The Phillies will win the series!” — Dr. Jill Biden, to ABC’s Karen Travers, before Games Three and Four of the World Series.

“I think he’s got an out-of-this-world ego. He’s very narcissistic. And he’s able to focus all attention on him all the time.” — Rush Limbaugh, on “Fox News Sunday.”

For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:

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