You don’t have to agree with Doug Hoffman’s very conservative politics to appreciate the value of his insurgent candidacy.
This has to do with the inherently undemocratic nature of special congressional elections in New York, where a group of county chairmen – and not the rank-and-file members of a political party – selects the candidates.
Just about anywhere else in America, John McHugh’s resignation this summer (to serve as Barack Obama’s Army secretary) would have prompted a batch of would-be successors from both parties to announce their interest, circulate petitions, and then duke it out in primaries.
This is, for instance, what just happened in California’s 10th District, where five Democrats and six Republicans ran in the September 1 primary triggered by Representative Ellen Tauscher’s resignation. And it’s what happened in California’s 32nd District and Illinois’ 5th District earlier this year. And in Ohio’s 11th and Mississippi’s 1st last year. And Massachusetts’ 5th the year before. And on and on.
The special election primary process is healthy – and vital – for a political party. After all, House seats don’t open up very often, so when they do, there are usually long lines of ambitious potential successors. And most districts are drawn to favor one party over the other, so the winner of the special election often ends up serving for years – or decades – without serious opposition. Needless to say, the choice of a nominee is a hugely consequential decision – and one that grassroots activists care deeply about.
Primaries are the perfect outlet for this grassroots engagement. Candidates of all ideological stripes are free to run and every member of the party is free to participate. At least in theory, this creates cohesion when the primary is over – the losing candidates and their supporters will back the winner because the process was fair and they had their chance.
Not so in New York, though. In lieu of primaries, county party leaders are empowered to pick the nominees for House vacancies, the grassroots be damned. This is what happened in the 20th District earlier this year, when Democratic leaders picked Scott Murphy and Republican leaders chose Jim Tedisco to run in the special election to replace Kirsten Gillibrand. And it’s what happened in McHugh’s 23rd District this summer, when the Democrats went with Bill Owens and the Republicans anointed Dede Scozzafava.
But this time – for once – the closed-door process has come back to bite one of the parties, with Hoffman, spurned by the G.O.P. chieftains, mounting a third-party candidacy that has gained so much support that Scozzafava was forced to drop out over the weekend.
Nationally, much is being made of the discouraging message that Hoffman’s rise sends to moderate Republicans. And, to be sure, there’s something to this: Hoffman represents a brand of reflexive Obama rejectionism that is embraced by the shrunken, radicalized post-2008 base of the G.O.P. while Scozzafava, with her cultural liberalism and ties to labor, is more appealing to the voters who’ve been fleeing from the party. That Hoffman, running on the Conservative Party line, could eat so deeply into the Republican nominee’s support says plenty about where G.O.P. voters are right now.
But the absence of an open primary process is also a major factor in Hoffman’s success. Had there been a primary, he may well have won it; it’s hard to argue otherwise, given the support he’s attracted as a third-party candidate. Then again, Hoffman’s perceived martyrdom – the real conservative who the party bosses tried to stop! – has created traction this fall that probably would have been missing in a primary.
Either way, it would have been far better for the G.O.P. to have a primary. Had Hoffman won, he would be in the exact same position he’s now in after Scozzafava’s withdrawal: endorsed and embraced by the local, state and national Republican establishments. But he wouldn’t be facing the prospect of Scozzafava, with her name still listed as the Republican nominee, siphoning off votes on Election Day – and he wouldn’t have had to spend the last two months fighting to establish himself as the consensus Republican choice.
And had he lost a primary, he might not be running now. He would have had a chance to make his case to the party faithful and, in defeat, respected their verdict. State and national G.O.P. leaders would have had a much more compelling argument to keep him from running a third-party campaign. And it would have been easy to call him a sore loser if he went ahead with one.
But without a primary, Hoffman and his supporters could claim (correctly) that they’d never been given a fair shot at the nomination – and that running in the general election was their only opportunity to show their strength.
The Republican Party leaders who ignored Hoffman this summer had good reason to think they’d get away with it – history was on their side. Anyone else remember how irked rank-and-file Democrats were in 1998, when Tom Manton conveniently dropped his re-election plans after the filing deadline – allowing the Queens County Democratic Party that he ran to circumvent a primary and instead anoint his handpicked successor, Joe Crowley, as the nominee? And how the uproar quickly died down and how Crowley has never faced a serious challenge since then?
Maybe their experience this fall will finally prompt a rethinking of New York’s antiquated special election procedures – and recognition that more democracy in the selection of U.S. representatives is better than less.