How Bill Owens Spoiled a Republican Narrative

So there we were somewhere around 10 o’clock on Election Night, watching as county after county reported devastating news for Jon Corzine.

New Jersey’s governor—for whom Barack Obama made two splashy campaign appearances in the home stretch—was going down, the first Democrat to lose a statewide race there in 12 years, and only the second in 37 years to lose one by more than a point. And the national Republican Party was ready to exploit it for all it was worth.

“That sound you hear,” G.O.P. strategist Mike Murphy confidently tweeted as Corzine’s demise became obvious, “is a lot of Blue Dog Democrats in House running now for the tall grass. NJ loss will be big whammy for them.”

The G.O.P.’s gloating spin for the foreseeable future was set: Look, we just beat an incumbent Democrat who attached himself to Obama in a deeply blue state! This White House, with its stimulus plans and health scare schemes, is politically toxic—and incumbents with the dreaded “D” label are heading for the same fate in 2010.

And then, as if on cue, the votes started pouring in from the upstate 23rd District—a district, mind you, that last sent a Democrat to Congress when Abraham Lincoln was president. And the leader was none other than the Democratic nominee, Bill Owens—the same man who received a last-minute campaign visit from that (supposedly) politically toxic White House’s own vice president, Joe Biden.

By the time most of the votes were tallied, Owens was on his way to victory over Doug Hoffman, who ran on the Conservative Party line but who was embraced by the national G.O.P. in the race’s closing days.

And with Owens’ apparent triumph, the G.O.P.’s spin went straight down the toilet. So we lost New Jersey, Democrats could now say. Big deal. Corzine was as popular as swine flu. It’s not like it had anything to do with Obama—because if that was the case, then we wouldn’t have just won one of the most reliably Republican Congressional districts in the nation!

Instead of touting a complete off-year sweep, which they seemed poised to do earlier in the evening, Republicans found themselves at the end of Election Night trying desperately to spin an at-best muddled result into clear-cut evidence of a national rejection of President Obama (and a simultaneous awakening of the G.O.P.).

But it wasn’t that at all, and no one was about to fall for it—thanks to Owens. Had he lost in the 23rd, the G.O.P. would have earned the off-year sweep it so badly wanted—and, for a few brief minutes, even tasted. Instead, the White House and national Democrats can call Election ’09 a wash. (Well, they’ll call it a major victory, but the press will treat it as a wash, which is good enough for Obama and his allies.)

Moreover, the apparent defeat of Hoffman will shine much more attention in the coming days on the G.O.P.’s civil war.

The right celebrated when his independent candidacy—itself the result, in part, of New York’s outdated primary-less procedure for House special elections—forced the G.O.P.’s moderate nominee, Dede Scozzafava, out of the race the weekend before the vote. It was, they claimed and the press agreed, the final nail in the coffin of the old Rockefeller wing of the G.O.P. For years, moderates had been fleeing the G.O.P.; now they were being told definitely that they weren’t welcome in the party anymore.

To conservatives nationally, this was a terrific development—a chance to show that their eagerness to move even farther to the right after the 2006 and 2008 elections and their decision to blindly and loudly oppose all of President Obama’s initiatives could win at the ballot box.

But it all backfired. Scozzafava’s exit and subsequent endorsement of Owens, it’s now clear, infused the Democrat’s campaign with significant new support in the race’s closing days—a clear repudiation of the right’s claim that the G.O.P. can win without even trying to appeal to the middle.

With Scozzafava as their nominee (and without Hoffman and his national conservative allies running a third-party campaign), the Republicans would have won this special election. Which would have given them their coveted off-year sweep. Then they would have been free to spin away about all of the horrible and troubling implications for Obama’s presidency.

Instead, though, they were left talking up New Jersey while trying to pretend the Owens-Hoffman race didn’t happen. 

By the way, in case you missed it, here was one of Murphy’s final tweets of the night: “I don’t have county by county numbers to work from but it looks like Owens in NY-23 to me. Shocker!”