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Politics & Poker: Conservatives Hoping for Repeat of 1970 Senate Outcome

Correction Appended

In theory, Republicans’ decision to back state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R) in the special election to replace former Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) was sound.

[IMGCAP(1)]As a social and fiscal moderate, Scozzafava seems uniquely equipped to attract votes from groups that Republicans have lost and desperately need to win back: women, Independents and Reagan Democrats. Chances are, if Scozzafava were in a one-on-one contest with lawyer Bill Owens, the little-known Democratic nominee in next week’s election, she’d win by 10 points.

But GOP leaders — especially in Washington, D.C. — failed to anticipate the buzzsaw that is Mike Long, the wily chairman of the New York Conservative Party. And that grievous error is likely to cost them an upstate New York seat that Republicans have held since the Civil War.

Never mind that Sarah Palin, Dick Armey, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and other national figures on the right have endorsed Doug Hoffman, the CPA who is the Conservative Party nominee, over Scozzafava. That’s interesting, but merely a sideshow.

The fact that the Republicans were not immediately able to lock down the Conservative Party nomination for their candidate was the true seismic event in the special election. Anyone who knows Long, the Conservative Party maestro who manages to be both a provocateur and a power broker, the tail that frequently wags the New York Republican dog, should have known that he wouldn’t stomach a moderate like Scozzafava in such a high-profile election. And that is what’s dooming Scozzafava now.

There is an almost “Rashomon—-like quality to the story of how Hoffman came to be the Conservative nominee. He unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination, and when GOP leaders in the eight counties within the 23rd district anointed Scozzafava this summer, Hoffman appeared ready to fall in line, dropping the Assemblywoman a note offering to help.

But within days, Long made it clear that he would not offer Scozzafava the Conservative Party line. Hoffman, aided by some one-time operatives for former New York Gov. George Pataki (R), quickly emerged as the Conservatives’ choice amid word that he was prepared to drop a significant amount of his own money in the race.

Some history of the Conservative Party is in order here. It was founded in the early 1960s as a counterpoint to New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican. It gained notoriety in 1965, when author and pundit William F. Buckley Jr. ran a gadfly campaign for mayor of New York City on the Conservative line.

The party’s most glorious coup came in 1970, when Buckley’s brother, James Buckley, was elected to the Senate running on the Conservative line alone, taking 39 percent of the vote to 37 percent for the Democratic nominee and 24 percent to Charles Goodell, the Republican incumbent who had been appointed to the Senate by Rockefeller following the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

But as the national and New York GOP has moved steadily to the right through the years, the Conservatives have cross-endorsed Republicans about 90 percent of the time. The Conservative Party now frequently has a big say in the GOP nomination process, and the last Republican to win a statewide election in New York without also appearing on the Conservative line was then-Sen. Jacob Javits, a Rockefeller ally, back in 1974. The Conservatives played a big role in ousting Javits six years later, backing an obscure local official named Al D’Amato in the GOP primary.

The party has been less of a player in House races as a rule — though in recent years it has sometimes refused to offer its line to such Republican moderates as former Reps. Sherwood Boehlert, Bill Green and Sue Kelly. (By the same token, the Conservatives occasionally endorsed Democratic Reps. Brian Higgins and Michael McMahon during their campaigns for lower offices.)

Long is one of the true characters of New York politics today. For years, the state party headquarters was on the same block as a liquor store he owned in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn — scene of the legendary “Saturday Night Fever.— Long would often conduct party business over the phone while manning the cash register at the store. Other times, he’d leave the store in someone else’s hands and hold meetings out on the street, leaning against a parking meter while a supplicant made his pitch. He has sold the liquor store, but he still runs the Conservative Party like a small-time business.

Some conservatives — big C and small c — see parallels between the 1970 Senate race and the special election for McHugh’s seat. Is it wishful thinking, or could history repeat itself?

Thirty-nine years ago, the Nixon White House, which hated Goodell because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, helped Buckley — first behind the scenes, then quite overtly. And in the waning days of the campaign, seeing the handwriting on the wall, even Rockefeller dropped his out and out resistance to the Buckley candidacy. Senate Republicans didn’t mind that Buckley won, because he caucused with the GOP.

But with just a week until Election Day, and one of the three most recent public polls showing Scozzafava running third in the special, will national Republican leaders ditch her and start aiding Hoffman, who will certainly caucus with the House GOP if he wins?

Strategists for the National Republican Congressional Committee continue to insist that, because he does not have the campaign or party infrastructure, or the geographical advantages that Scozzafava has, Hoffman does not have “a path to victory.—

But Long and his cohorts provide the infrastructure, the ex-Pataki operatives provide the talent and conservative groups such as Club for Growth are providing the money. So victory for Hoffman may not be that far-fetched — and he may be the GOP’s best hope at this point. A poll released by the club Monday showed Hoffman with a slight lead over Owens, though one within the margin of error.

Many pundits have already weighed in on what this election says about the ideological fissures roiling the national GOP, and that’s part of what makes the race so fascinating. But it may even be a bigger warning signal for New York Republicans.

While they’ve just installed a new state chairman — Ed Cox, the son-in-law of Richard Nixon — Republicans seem in danger of becoming more irrelevant than ever in New York. Not even the historically dismal standing of Democratic Gov. David Paterson may resuscitate the Empire State GOP. If Republicans lose the gubernatorial race or don’t win back control of the state Senate next year, they could be redistricted into oblivion.

As for next week’s special election, if Owens is victorious, thanks to all the Republican discord he may well be the most obscure and least-vetted winner of a Congressional special election in many, many years.

Correction: Oct. 27, 2009

The column misstated the number of recent public polls that have shown state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R) running last in the New York special Congressional election. Only one poll in the past week has shown her trailing her two opponents.

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