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By Jay Cost

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The Lesson of NY-23

With all the twists and turns in the race for New York's 23rd Congressional District, it seems like it should mean something, right? You don't have all this drama without some higher purpose, or so the thinking goes. Predictably, pundits have been working overtime to explain the point of this soap opera in Watertown.

For what it's worth, I do not think that a special election - any special election - is a particularly good barometer of the political climate of any place outside the district in question. Factor in low turnout, and sometimes it is hard to argue that it's even a good barometer inside the district. The race in NY-23 is further complicated by a prominent third party candidate. So, I think there are no inferences to draw from this race about national politics. And I think most analysts would essentially agree on that point. Pontificating aside, will anybody update their 2010 predictions based on the outcome in this race?

That being said, I do think there is a lesson to be learned here. It just doesn't have anything to do with the 2010 midterm, Barack Obama, the health care battle, etc. It's not so much a current events lesson as it is a civics lesson. The drama in this race is yet another example of the fundamental truth about the contemporary party organization: it is extraordinarily weak. And I don't mean that the 2010 Republican Party is weak. I'm talking about the whole system: Democrats and Republicans; local, state, and federal; congressional and electoral. Weak, weak, weak!

Consider the circumstances of this three-way, now two-way race. The local Republican Party organization nominated a candidate that the party's core electorate was not prepared to accept. What happened next?

If the party organization was strong, we would have expected the base to swallow hard, respect the power of the organization in this case, and get behind Scozzafava. But since the organization is weak, the base revolted and started migrating to the Hoffman camp.

Predictably, the national and local party organizations stood behind Scozzafava. That's their job, afterall. But as the race drew national attention - strategic politicians with ambitions for higher office began to involve themselves. What happened next?

If the party organization was strong, we would have expected those strategic pols to recognize the dangers of upsetting the powers-that-be in the party machinery, and to back Scozzafava against the base. But since the organization is weak, they started lining up behind Hoffman, one after another. Some of them even "bravely" changed their endorsements after they realized that the base disagreed with their initial decisions!

A unique factor facilitating this turnaround was the Conservative Party, a mainstay of New York politics that helps set the electoral agenda in the state. In this case it gave disaffected Republicans an easy outlet to voice their grievances. Still, when we strip away all the unique features of this particular race, we find a generalizable quality to this contest: the political power of the Republican Party is not really housed in the party organization - not in NY-23, and not really anywhere else. Instead, party power lies in the nexus of party activists/donors, base voters, and ambitious officeholders/candidates. As the events in NY-23 have made pretty clear, the party organizations play a limited role in the game of power politics.

In fact, they have been weak for a long time. Progressives took the general right to nominate party candidates away from them. The New Deal and good government reforms stripped them of most of their patronage. So nowadays, party bosses don't really have the power to boss anybody around. They have no carrots and no sticks. That's not a good recipe for a 21st century Boss Tweed!

The drama in NY-23 shows just how weak today's party organizations are. Quirkily enough, the local party had the technical power to nominate a candidate without a primary. However, while there wasn't a de jure primary here - the base's response to Scozzafava was tantamount to a de facto primary. Party leaders like Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty were quick to "certify" those results because they have national ambitions that will ultimately require the support of those same base voters. And that was it for Scozzafava, the choice of the local party organization.

As I have argued many times on this blog, contemporary party organizations - from the Republican National Committee all the way down - really have just one job: to launder money to cash-strapped candidates who must spend massive amounts of dollars in a campaign finance environment governed by restrictive laws like the FECA and the BCRA. Once these organizations step beyond this role - and especially when they go against the mass of voters who constitute the party base - they have virtually no authority.

This party impotence extends from the very top and travels all the way down to the local level. At the top, the victorious President gets to redesign his national committee in his own image. Congressional party leaders have no power whatsoever to remove defectors from their seats. In actuality, they'll funnel as much money as possible to defectors who are in electoral trouble. And state and local parties? If the withdrawal of Scozzafava isn't evidence enough of just how little power they actually have, I'll put it this way. Most of you reading this are greatly interested in politics. A lot of you probably contribute dollars and maybe even time to your favorite candidates. To you, I'd ask: how much money and time have you contributed to your state and local parties?

-Jay Cost