WASHINGTON — The future of the Republican Party will be tested Tuesday in upstate New York.
A special election for an open seat in the U.S House of Representatives has turned into a high-profile proxy war over how the party should come back from the stinging losses of both the House and Senate in 2006 and the White House in 2008.
Will the GOP try to win back power by picking centrist candidates to fit moderate districts when necessary, the "big tent" approach that the Democrats used when they won back control of both houses of Congress in 2006? Or will it pick only ideologically pure conservative candidates, regardless of where they run, convinced that their principles will sell anywhere?
The result Tuesday could help determine how the Republican Party tries to win back control of the House and Senate in 2010 -- and perhaps who they will nominate for president in 2012.
"The Republican Party is trying to define itself," said Peter Brown, a political analyst and assistant director of the polling institute at Quinnipiac University. "There's a fight going on within the party about what it is and what it stands for."
The test case comes in New York's 23rd congressional district, a largely rural area bordering Canada. The House seat there was left vacant when moderate Republican Rep. John McHugh was chosen by President Barack Obama to be Secretary of the Army.
Republican county chairmen there picked state legislator Dede Scozzafava out of nine candidates as their nominee, mindful that McHugh was a moderate who often voted against the party line, and that the district had swung to Obama in 2008.
One losing candidate for the Republican nomination, Doug Hoffman, refused to quit. He sought and won the backing of the state Conservative Party, setting up a three-way contest with Scozzafava and Bill Owens, the Democratic candidate.
With his challenge from the right, Hoffman's become a cause celebre for conservatives nationwide who say their party strayed from its core principles during the Bush years. That's only increased since polls began to suggest that Hoffman might win.
"Our nation is at a crossroads, and this is once again a time for choosing," said former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin when she became one of the first national Republicans to bolt the party to back Hoffman.
"Political parties must stand for something," Palin said on her widely viewed Facebook page. "When Republicans were in the wilderness in the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan knew that the doctrine of 'blurring the lines' between parties was not an appropriate way to win elections. Unfortunately, the Republican Party today has decided to choose a candidate who more than blurs the lines, and there is no real difference between the Democrat and the Republican in this race."
Palin isn't the only potential candidate for the Republicans' 2012 presidential nomination jumping in to back Hoffman. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty also has endorsed Hoffman.
So did a group of prominent conservatives led by former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese, as well as former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, who now heads a conservative pressure group, FreedomWorks.
Conservatives complain that Scozzafava supports same sex-marriage, the Obama economic stimulus package, new union powers to sign up members and tax increases.
"This woman was picked by party bosses. It was an inside deal and they picked a RINO -- Republican In Name Only," said Keith Appel, a conservative strategist who's not allied with either campaign. "Over the last few years, there has been widening disconnect between the rank and file and the party leadership in Washington. . . . In the long run, anyone who supports Doug Hoffman is going to resonate well and do well with the conservative grass roots."
Perhaps. Two conservative 2012 GOP presidential prospects, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have declined to endorse Hoffman.
Some conservatives support Scozzafava, insisting that a one-size-fits-all strategy isn't a good approach to districts such as New York 23.
"Outside endorsements will not change the fact that she's the only candidate with the cross party appeal that can win this swing district," said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Others note that Rahm Emanuel, then a congressman and now the White House Chief of Staff, helped Democrats win the House in 2006 by recruiting many moderate candidates who fit their districts even if they don't fit as well in the liberal House Democratic caucus.
One conservative voice for that approach is the man who led the last Republican takeover of Congress, in 1994.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich noted that Scozzafava is backed by the National Rifle Association, opposes the Obama health care plan and pledged to vote against tax increases. He warns that searching for a perfect conservative candidate could split the Republican vote in a three-way contest and help the Democrats, which he said was happening in the governor's race in New Jersey and could happen in the New York congressional race.
"If you seek to be a perfect minority, you'll remain a minority," Gingrich wrote on National Review Online. "That's not how Reagan built his revolution or how we won back the House in 1994."
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