The Nov. 3 House special election in New York is emerging as a early conservative test for the 2012 GOP presidential field, with three prospective candidates for the nomination breaking with the party establishment in recent days to endorse Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman.
On Monday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty became the latest party hopeful to throw his support to Hoffman over Dede Scozzafava, a GOP moderate who is supported by the National Republican Congressional Committee and the House GOP leadership.
According to a GOP source, Pawlenty’s Freedom First PAC will contribute the maximum $2,400 to Hoffman’s campaign—the PAC’s first donation.
Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman who supports gay marriage, abortion rights and has close ties to labor officials in her region, has been harshly criticized by conservatives who claim she is too liberal for them to support her candidacy in upstate New York’s 23rd District.
Pawlenty’s endorsement follows announcements last week from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, both of whom backing Hoffman. An accounting executive and a relative political newcomer, Hoffman has recently emerged as a rallying point for tea party protesters and conservative activists across the country. As recently as Thursday, when asked if he planned to endorse a candidate in the special election, Pawlenty said, “I haven’t been following that.”
“It’s clear they’ve made a strategic decision that they would rather cross the GOP leaders in Washington than cross grassroots conservatives, many of whom have adopted Hoffman as a cause célèbre,” said Todd Harris, a veteran Republican strategist who worked for John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000. “When you’re running for president in the Republican Party, part of your job is to look like the most conservative candidate. And if a Hoffman endorsement is the ticket to prove your conservative credentials, then a lot of Republicans are going to punch that ticket.”
“For a prospective GOP presidential candidate, the choice in New York is as simple as apple pie,” explained University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “The Republican base in most states has views almost identical to Hoffman’s and opposite to Scozzafava’s. The wonder is that it has taken some of them so long to come on board for Hoffman.”
In his statement Monday, Pawlenty sung Hoffman’s praises, saying the third-party candidate “understands the federal government needs to quit spending so much, will vote against tax increases, and protect key values like the right to vote in private in union elections.”
“We cannot send more politicians to Washington who wear the Republican jersey on the campaign trail, but then vote like Democrats in Congress on issues like card check and taxes,” said Pawlenty, who is stepping down after two terms as governor to pursue a prospective White House run.
For Pawlenty, a Midwesterner who has touted a populist “Sam’s Club” approach to politics, the Hoffman endorsement came after taking fire from the influential conservative RedState blog for his comments Thursday about not following the contest.
But after Pawlenty’s endorsement Monday, some in the party voiced concern that the 2012 GOP field was moving too far to the right, too early.
“For a lot of moderates who look at Pawlenty as reasonable, it’s kind of disappointing,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), a former NRCC chairman. “What Republicans have to realize is that they have to form a broad base of support. But that’s not how you win the Republican primary.”
“This underscores a major issue the party is facing. How to win general elections, when the primaries are getting more and more conservative?” said Carl Forti, who served as political director on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid and who has ties to upstate New York. “The primary winners are often too right-wing to win a general election. This trend can't continue if the GOP hopes to become a majority party again.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Scozzafava supporter who is frequently mentioned as a prospective 2012 candidate, argued in an interview last week with National Review that “If you seek to be a perfect minority, you’ll remain a minority.”
“That’s not how Reagan built his revolution or how we won back the House in 1994,” Gingrich argued.
Davis argued that while the Democrats were losing support among independents, Republicans risked losing that support if their leaders were seen as rushing to the right.
A senior GOP strategist, granted anonymity in order to speak candidly, lamented that in endorsing Hoffman, the contenders had delivered to the White House an early victory in their efforts to brand the Republican Party as dominated by its conservative wing.
“The Obama White House has made a lot of mistakes, but they’ve certainly gotten the Republican Party’s number,” said the strategist.
The rush to back Hoffman, this strategist said, is “proof that the Obama political strategy is working.”
The strategist further argued that in supporting a candidate who is a favorite among tea party activists, Pawlenty and others are pandering to a faction that has yet to prove it is willing to actively support the GOP in elections.
Still, at least two prospective GOP hopefuls have made deliberate decisions not to endorse Hoffman. Spokespersons for Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee confirmed today that Romney and Huckabee have no immediate plans to endorse in this contest.
Harris, the Republican strategist, suggested that as the early favorite, Romney was not compelled to make a play for conservative support.
“Gov. Romney is the closest thing the party has to a perceived frontrunner,” said Harris. “So he’s got a different set of calculations.”