In a special election Tuesday, Democrat Bill Owens won a seat in upstate New York that the Republicans had controlled since 1872. And if the Republican party had been able to unite behind a single candidate they would likely still control it. While local officials had nominated a relative moderate in Dede Scozzafava, conservatives in the national party—including, most visibly, Sarah Palin—backed the more conservative Doug Hoffman, comparing him to Jefferson Smith, the Jimmy Stewart character who takes on Washington in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Faced with such powerful opposition, Scozzafava dropped out and endorsed Owens.
It’s not important by itself who won New York’s 23rd District. But Democrats are salivating at the thought of Republicans fighting each other. By backing a movement conservative like Hoffman in a relatively moderate district and by splitting the vote—Scozzafava remained on the ballot—they gave a conservative Democrat like Owens a chance to win. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele called the election an “ugly hiccup,” saying that the problem was that “a nominee who did not fit that district was chosen for purely political reasons.” And, he warned, the Republicans will lose if they “play politics” among themselves.
Steele is right that it would be better for the Republican Party to unite behind a single platform. But it’s not that simple. You can’t tell politicians not to play politics. Conservative and moderates are fighting for a reason—the direction of the Party is important. When people say they don’t want to fight, what they generally mean is that they want the other side to back down. Either candidate in the New York election could have given up and thrown their support to the other, but both felt it was worth risking losing an election to try to change the direction of the Party. Steele himself—just hours after calling for unity—told ABC News that if candidates “cross the line” on conservative principles—and in particular if they support the President’s stimulus plan or the Democrats health care package—the Republican Party would come after them. Steele wants to control the direction of the Party just as much as Palin does. After all, if it’s not going in the right direction, it’s not worth fighting for.
With the Republican Party down at the moment and clearly need a change of course, there’s a lot at stake. That’s why the Party is likely going to face some difficult fights in next year’s primaries. Those struggles may cost them some votes—and some elections—but it’s a battle for the very soul of the party.