Silvan Johnson adores Sarah Palin, belongs to a conservative discussion group and fumes at President Obama’s spending policies. But when it comes to picking a new congressional representative for her upstate New York district, she is in no mood to help the Republican Party.
In fact, Johnson and many other conservatives want to use a Nov. 3 special election to teach the GOP a lesson about sticking to conservative values -- even though that lesson could mean the party loses a House seat it has held for decades. The conservatives are backing a third-party candidate, splitting the Republican vote and giving the Democrat a lead in some recent opinion polls.
“Both parties seem to be more for big government,” said Johnson, a probation clerk in Fulton, N.Y. “The Republicans need to learn that the people they are running [for office] do not represent the views of the people.”
The conservative rebellion in northern New York is showing that the anger among disaffected voters, which became prominent this summer during the “tea party” anti-spending rally in Washington and at town hall meetings on healthcare, has become a baffling political force that even Republicans are having a hard time harnessing.
The fight on the right has also made this district the epicenter of a national debate about the future of the Republican Party -- leaving party leaders to ask whether they are better off emphasizing the GOP’s small-government and socially conservative values, or trying to broaden their appeal to reach independent and moderate voters.
That dilemma is coming clearly into view as the party lines up candidates for important 2010 races, including Senate contests in competitive states such as Florida, Illinois and New Hampshire.
The party establishment has tended to choose middle-of-the-road candidates, like moderate Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida. But conservatives have responded by raising money and building up the candidacy of conservative Marco Rubio, former speaker of the Florida House.
For now, major GOP figures are using New York’s special House election to send a signal that they want the party to turn toward the right.
Palin herself has rebuffed the Republican candidate, who was hand-picked by local GOP leaders and who supports abortion rights and gay marriage. Instead, Palin has endorsed the conservative alternative, Doug Hoffman. So have former House Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas and former GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
Voters from outside the district have weighed in too. Cathy Vasilakos, an accountant in Brooklyn, sent a $50 check to Hoffman to protest the fact that Newt Gingrich and the national GOP had endorsed the Republican nominee, Dede Scozzafava, a longtime state assemblywoman.
Vasilakos returned a fundraising letter from the Republican National Committee, after scribbling with her black Sharpie: “I’d rather give my monetary support to conservatives like Doug Hoffman. When the RNC gets a clue, they can put me back on their mailing list.”
But Gingrich and many other Republican leaders say that if the party is to win nationally and in swing districts like this one, it cannot move too far to the right.
Support for Hoffman, they argue, is a recipe for electing the Democrat, lawyer Bill Owens. That may allow Republicans to maintain their ideological purity, they say, but it will not win the elections needed to oust Democrats from power.
“We have to decide which business we are in,” Gingrich said on his website after conservatives derided his endorsement of Scozzafava. “If we are in the business of feeling good about ourselves while our country gets crushed, then I probably made the wrong decision.”
The 2009 off-year elections come at a crucial juncture for the GOP in its journey to recover from brutal electoral defeats in 2006 and 2008.
The party has been buoyed by near unanimity among its lawmakers on Capitol Hill in opposition to Obama’s healthcare, economic and environmental policies. Its fundraising and candidate recruitment efforts for 2010 have rebounded.
But polls indicate that dwindling enthusiasm for Obama and his policies is not translating readily into increased support for the GOP.
Recent surveys show Republican Party identification dropping this year, even as the share of Americans who say they are independent has jumped.
In another greatly watched 2009 political campaign, for governor of New Jersey, a wide swath of alienated voters is turning away from both political parties: An independent candidate is showing surprising strength against Democratic incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine and his Republican opponent, Chris Christie.
New York is holding a special House election in the 23rd District -- which stretches across the Adirondack mountains from Oswego to Lake Champlain -- to replace the district’s 16-year congressman, moderate Republican John M. McHugh, who was named secretary of the Army. The region has sent Republicans to Congress since 1980. But in presidential races, it is a swing district: In 2008, Obama won it with 52% of the vote.
When McHugh was picked for the Army post, the district’s 11 GOP county chairmen met in July and chose Scozzafava as their nominee -- over Hoffman and a handful of other contenders. She had high name recognition, and supporters said she was the one most likely to draw the centrist support needed to win.
Hoffman, a businessman, abandoned his promise to back the Republican nominee and ran with the endorsement of the Conservative Party, a significant force in New York politics that usually works in tandem with the GOP.
Word of his insurgent campaign spread locally and nationally, via online activist groups and publicity from conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck.
The campaign attracted volunteers like Jennifer Bernstone, a performing artist in Canastota, N.Y., who had never been involved in politics.
Bernstone had been seething ever since President George W. Bush agreed to bail out teetering Wall Street banks in late 2008. She snapped into political action a few weeks ago, after the GOP nominated Scozzafava.
“Dede is more liberal than the Democrat,” Bernstone said, as she put in a day of campaign work that began at 8 a.m. and was likely to end after midnight.
In addition to supporting abortion rights and gay marriage, Scozzafava backs legislation making it easier for unions to organize. Critics say she is insufficiently committed to tax cuts.
McHugh had been easily reelected in the district by wide margins, and Scozzafava’s backers say a conservative like Hoffman does not fit the district.
“Her positions on a lot of issues are reflective of the electorate here,” said Matt Burns, a Scozzafava spokesman. “If the idea is that every Republican that runs for office needs [to be] someone who fits in Georgia, then it’s going to be very, very difficult for Republicans to gain a majority in the House of Representatives.”
Many of Hoffman’s supporters and donors are from outside the district.
Bernstone said she was expecting volunteers to come from far-flung parts of the state, and even from Connecticut, for weekend canvassing.
Donations started coming from all parts of the country as the race began to draw national attention. As of Oct. 14, the campaign reported it had raised about $307,888 -- more than Scozzafava, but less than Owens.
In the week after that, a surge of Internet donations doubled Hoffman’s total, campaign spokesman Rob Ryan said.
Vasilakos, the Brooklyn accountant, was among Hoffman’s long-distance donors.
“This race matters to me,” she said. “But I can’t go upstate with a sign.”