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2009, Obama's Policies, and GOP's Future

2009, Obama's Policies, and GOP's Future

By Robert Tracinski - November 3, 2009

Tuesday is election day, a nice, sleepy little off-year election, with just a few state governor's races and a special election to fill a House seat. It would be nothing special and little noted by anyone outside those states or districts--in any other year.

Instead, tomorrow is the first electoral measure of the popular reaction to the policies of the Obama administration--and, perhaps more important, the first electoral measure of the strength of the "tea party" rebellion against big government.

Surprisingly, the real fireworks are not in the Virginia or New Jersey races, but in the smallest, most obscure contest: NY-23, New York's upstate 23rd congressional district. It is a "safe" Republican district, but not one with a history of electing firebrand conservatives. When its popular, long-time incumbent was asked by the Obama administration to become Secretary of the Army--his district is home to Fort Drum--the seat opened up unexpectedly. Under party rules, the new Republican nominee was selected, not in a primary, but by a committee of local county chairmen. They chose Dede Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman with what turns out to be a very left-leaning record.

The objections to Scozzafava come from both the religious and secular wings of the right. The religionists object to the fact that she is pro-abortion, but in this year of the "tea party" protests and the town hall rebellions against socialized medicine, I don't think that would have been enough to motivate a grassroots rejection of her candidacy. Instead, what touched it off is that she is pro-union, weak in her opposition to tax increases, and--the real kiss of death--she endorsed the Obama "stimulus" bill.

All of this--both the religious issues and the big-government issues--prompted Doug Hoffman to run against Scozzafava on the Conservative Party ticket. (Significant third parties are rare in America, and the Conservative Party is a peculiar New York institution in the same way that the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party is a peculiar institution in Minnesota.) Hoffman was immediately adopted by the Republican base and by activists outside the district as, in effect, the "tea party" candidate, and he began to draw Republican support away from Scozzafava.

At first, this simply split the Republican vote, giving the Democratic candidate an advantage. But then last week a string of conservative celebrities and rising political figures--Fred Thompson, Sarah Palin, Steve Forbes, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and so on--all endorsed Hoffman, despite the fact that the Republican establishment, including Newt Gingrich, had backed Scozzafava. The result was that Scozzafava's poll numbers collapsed, and over the weekend she withdrew from the race--and endorsed the Democratic candidate.

There was some question about whether this would benefit the Democratic candidate, whether Scozzafava's voters would really shift to the Democrat, giving him a majority in a two-man race. But it seems to have mostly benefited Hoffman. From what I can tell, Scozzafava's endorsement of the Democrat simply served to prove Hoffman right in his description of her as a leftist in disguise.

Thus, the latest polls show Hoffman with a clear lead and likely to win tomorrow's vote.

This is obviously a big message sent to both parties, but more to the Republicans than to the Democrats. The message is that the party had better nominate small-government candidates and not "me-too" types who will echo the agenda of the left.

An interesting overview of this contest also points to some other races where this will be a factor, such as a Florida race in which Governor Charlie Crist is seeking the Republican nomination for a Senate seat--but the primary may become a referendum on Crist's stance in favor of Obama's "stimulus" bill.

The significance of this race is not just about the power of the small-government movement within the Republican Party. It's also about the appeal of that movement to political independents. The conventional wisdom--represented by Gingrich--is that Republicans have to nominate more left-leaning candidates in "moderate" districts, in order to win over independent voters who are allegedly more sympathetic to the big-government agenda of the Democrats. But Hoffman's lead in the polls indicates that this conventional wisdom is wrong, and that the independents have shifted to the small-government side.

The same factor is driving the election in Virginia. The Republican candidate, Bob McDonnell, has a history as an advocate of a religious agenda, and a big controversy here has been over a graduate thesis he wrote decades ago advocating the social agenda of the religionists. But what is interesting is that McDonnell has basically declared this story an irrelevant distraction and campaigned on taxes and the economy--again, appealing to popular discontent with the rapid expansion of government. And independents have swung to his side, giving him a strong lead that makes him almost certain to win tomorrow, carrying along many other Republican candidates "down the ballot."

And we can see this story even in New Jersey--despite the best efforts of that state's Republican candidate. Chris Christie has put out campaign ads featuring President Obama--in a positive light--and he has pointedly refused to offer a plan to reduce the state's high property taxes, a major long-term issue in New Jersey politics. In short, he has done everything he could possibly do to lose the election to Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine--the candidate who is actually endorsed by Obama.

But he isn't losing. And in the past week, as it looked like the Democrat might pull ahead in the pulls, Obama has actively campaigned for Corzine. It turns out Obama has had about as much effect on New Jersey voters as he did on the International Olympic Committee: Corzine has slid back down in the polls.

As in NY-23, there is an Independent candidate who has gained a surprising number of votes on an anti-tax platform. But unlike NY-23, his poll numbers have declined recently as his supporters seem to be moving back toward the Republican. But if you take the two candidates together, the Republican and Independent command about 60% of the vote against the Democratic candidate and against the candidate backed by the president.

So the combined message of NY-23, Virginia, and New Jersey is that the "tea party" movement's rebellion against big government enjoys wide popular support, particularly among the independent voters who cast the deciding votes in elections.

This election day will make it significantly more difficult for Obama and the leftist committee chairmen in Congress to push through their health-care bill. There are dozens of Democratic congressmen serving their very first terms in right-leaning congressional districts. They now know that they can expect this to be their only term--if they vote for the bill Nancy Pelosi is sending to them.

This, by the way, is why I reluctantly recommend a vote for the Republican candidate in New Jersey, the only one of these races that really seems to be tight. No, it will not do anything to improve politics in the Garden State. But if it is seen as part of an anti-Obama message--particularly because Obama chose to campaign there--then it will serve a larger and more important purpose: reducing the chances for the passage of Obamacare.

That's the message that needs to come in loud and clear to the Democrats: that America has not shifted left and therefore that there is no base of popular support for President Obama's policies.

Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and a contributor to RealClearMarkets.

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