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View From Washington GOP Upheaval


The Congressional race for the 23rd district of New York is the gift that just keeps on giving to the politically obsessed, but the postmortem on it and what it signifies for the future direction of the Republican Party as well as LGBT equality might surpass the run-up.

Let's start with a little catch up on a race that's had too many twists and turns to adequately recap in one graph.

Locked in a three-way race against a Democrat and a Conservative Party candidate, Republican nominee and state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, who twice voted to pass the Empire state's same-sex marriage bill in 2007 and 2009, abruptly pulled out of the race Saturday after polling showed her running dead last. By Sunday afternoon, Scozzafava had endorsed Democrat Bill Owens for the seat over Conservative Douglas Hoffman, neither of whom supports marriage equality.

To be honest, it's hard to even know where to start or end with the particulars of this race. But here are several salient facts to keep in mind.

First, when Scozzafava first cast her vote for marriage equality, some predicted her political demise since she represents a conservative upstate district. Instead, she ran unopposed for reelection in 2008 because, clearly, no one thought she was vulnerable enough in her district to unseat.

Second, eleven local county chairs in the 23rd district unanimously selected Scozzafava as the GOP nominee for the seat after considering nearly ten other candidates during a handful of regional meetings where each candidate was questioned on their stances. Hoffman's viability is the product of ideological purists from outside the district pouring a ton of money into a race to pick off a Republican whom they deemed insufficiently conservative.

Third, Scozzafava, who is often framed as a "moderate Republican" by Democrats and a "liberal Republican" by her GOP detractors, runs to the left of her party on both social issues (pro-choice and pro-same-sex marriage) as well as fiscal issues (supports labor unions and was slow to sign a no tax increase pledge, among other things).

Fourth, while Scozzafava was targeted occasionally for her marriage vote, it was by no means the main point of attack for her opponents.

As Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post noted, Hoffman "focused almost entirely on the idea of him as a political outsider who wants to shake up the way things are being done in Washington. And, it's clearly working."

Cillizza ultimately concluded, "While Republicans will cast a Hoffman win as a victory for them (it shows an energized GOP base) and Democrats will tout it as victory for their side (it shows a deeply divided Republican party), the truth is that a Hoffman win should send shivers up the spine of anyone who carries "Representative", "Senator" or "Governor" before their name."

It's worth noting here that a Hoffman win is not a foregone conclusion. A Siena poll released Saturday put Democratic candidate Owens at 36 percent of the vote, Hoffman at 35 percent, and left Scozzafava with 20 percent. Since she has a very loyal geographic base of voters, it's not entirely clear how that 20 will fall, especially given her endorsement of Owens.

The other interesting sideshow to this race has been the division between the national GOP leaders who backed Hoffman and those who stuck by Scozzafava. After the darling of the right, Sarah Palin, came out for Hoffman, as did GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a fiscal conservative, Newt Gingrich was left as the unexpected voice of moderation.

Here's Gingrich on FOX news: "Dede Scozzafava is endorsed by the National Rifle Association for her 2nd Amendment position, has signed the no tax increase pledge, voted against the Democratic governor's big-spending budget, is against the cap-and-trade tax increase on energy, is against the Obama health plan, and will vote for John Boehner, rather than Nancy Pelosi, to be Speaker. Now, that's adequately conservative in an upstate New York district."

Gingrich, the man who as House Speaker built one of the healthiest GOP majorities in Congress seen in modern times, went on to say that running 3rd-party conservatives against moderate Republicans would permanently relegate the GOP to minority status.

While acknowledging that Scozzafava was a "liberal Republican" on social issues, he added that she wasn't that far away from Rudy Giuliani's stances.

"So this idea that we're suddenly going to establish litmus tests, and all across the country, we're going to purge the party of anybody who doesn't agree with us 100 percent -- that guarantees Obama's reelection," Gingrich said. "That guarantees Pelosi is Speaker for life. I mean, I think that is a very destructive model for the Republican Party."

It's impossible to predict a great many things about this race, including its outcome, its effects on the political landscape, and the lessons to be drawn by both parties.

Regardless of who wins, the question for the LGBT community is, will this make some Republicans think twice about taking moderate stances on social issues lest they invite a 3rd-party challenge?

A couple takeaways, however, have already emerged. First, the GOP isn't anywhere near opening its doors to become a big-tent party again with some measure of diversity among its ranks. If it were, the national leadership would have uniformly aligned behind the candidate chosen by local leadership.

And perhaps most importantly for the LGBT community, while losing the only pro-marriage candidate was an unfortunate turn in the race, her fate was by no means due solely to her stance on LGBT issues.

"It was one of many factors in the mix," said one New York Republican who was close to the campaign. "You can be a social moderate and a fiscal conservative and survive, but the fiscal conservatives didn't like her -- they didn't like her on card check, they didn't like her on the stimulus."

Bottom line, anyone who chalks up Scozzafava's loss to her pro-gay positions is either sadly misinformed or purposely manipulating the facts.

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