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updated 10/29/2009 3:05:51 PM ET 2009-10-29T19:05:51
COMMENTARY

"New York 23" ... Them's fightin' words.

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These days, whether you're a conservative activist, or a Republican Party official, saying "New York 23" out loud leads to a shortening of breath, a quickening of the pulse, and a tightening of the muscles. Heads whip around to see who said it, and in what context — friend, or foe?

With less than a week to go before the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District, tempers are flaring on the campaign trail — and fingers are being pointed in, and at, a big white building at 320 First Street, S.E. (home of the National Republican Congressional Committee).

The official GOP nominee — Dede Scozzafava, a very liberal New York Assemblywoman — now trails her Democratic opponent, Bill Owens, and the Conservative Party nominee, Doug Hoffman, according to a survey released Monday by the Club for Growth.

The survey shows Hoffman surging into the lead with 31 percent, to 27 percent for Owens, with a fading Scozzafava drawing just 20 percent of the vote, and 22 percent of the voters still undecided.

Judging by their spending decisions, it appears the party apparatchiks who run the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee believe the CFG survey — they've taken down their advertising against Scozzafava, and are concentrating their fire in the final week on Hoffman.

Meanwhile, the apparatchiks at the National Republican Congressional Committee continue to view Hoffman and his candidacy as some sort of flu-like disease — rather than examine the data, and come to the conclusion that he is the only Republican who can win, they choose instead to fight him off as if he were an invading infection or virus.

For more than two months, Hoffman's momentum has been building, as conservatives of all shapes and sizes and pedigrees — Old Right barons (Mike Long, chairman of New York's Conservative Party; David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; Ron Pearson, of the Conservative Victory Fund; Citizens for the Republic), new media conservatives (Erick Erickson of RedState; Michelle Malkin; Patrick Ruffini), social conservatives (Concerned Women for America; the Susan B. Anthony List; Eagle Forum; National Organization for Marriage) and fiscal conservatives (Club for Growth; Steve Forbes; Dick Armey), and political leaders like Rick Santorum, Fred Thompson, Sarah Palin, and Tim Pawlenty — have come together behind his candidacy.

Those few GOP leaders who have dared speak out publicly in support of GOP nominee Scozzafava — like Newt Gingrich — have been roundly criticized by conservatives. (For Gingrich, in fact, the criticism has been especially brutal. Whatever plans he may have had about running for President in 2012 have taken a major shellacking since he dared stand up to the conservatives on this one.)

As the weeks have worn on, and the race has intensified, the campaign has become a proxy war for control of the center-right political apparatus in this country.

Tuesday, New York 23 hit the tipping point — with a front page story in the national edition of The New York Times, and a shocking endorsement for Hoffman from a respected and pragmatic political professional, the race has now become, officially, The Race To Watch.

The Times story's position in the newspaper, as much as its content, signaled to the Washington-New York mainstream media that they'd better bone up on this race in upstate New York, lest they be caught with their pants down. (Apparently, no one at The Gray Lady wants to see a repeat of Charlie Gibson being asked about ACORN and prostitutes.)

But the truly stunning news was Hoffman's endorsement by Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who is, to my knowledge, the only former political consultant currently serving in the Congress.

While he is ideologically conservative — he boasts a lifetime 94 percent rating from the American Conservative Union — Cole is a shrewd and canny campaign strategist whose avuncular personality masks a Type A drive and a determination to excel.

He happens to love making life miserable for Democrats.

Before being elected to the House of Representatives in 2002, Cole served as chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, as executive director of the NRCC, and as chief of staff of the Republican National Committee. In his spare time, he ran one of the more successful GOP consulting firms in the nation.

But, more importantly, in the 2008 cycle, Cole served as Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

He was replaced in that post by Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, under whose leadership the NRCC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars backing Scozzafava in what increasingly appears to be a failing attempt to hold off Hoffman.

Other Republican members of Congress had endorsed Hoffman — Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Todd Tiahrt of Kansas had previously endorsed Hoffman, while Dana Rohrabacher of California and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina joined Cole in endorsing Hoffman yesterday — but, frankly, I can think of few who look to them for political guidance in a matter like this. Each has established a reputation, to varying degrees, as a political maverick; no one confuses them with the Republican Leadership.

So Cole's endorsement represents the first breach of the Hoffman Flu into GOP leadership circles.

Apparently, Cole is the first Republican insider to recognize the importance of the confluence of two key data points revealed in recent polling — last week's Washington Post/ABC News poll, which revealed that only 20 percent of the nation answers to the name "Republican," posted against this week's Gallup Poll, which showed that 40 percent of the country identifies itself as "conservative."

In other words, Cole understands which end is the tail, and which end is the dog.

Note to Republican leaders — when there are twice as many people calling themselves "conservative" as there are people calling themselves "Republican," it makes no sense to nominate as your party's candidate a woman who's so far to the left, ideologically, that she's been endorsed by the nation's premier left-wing blogger.

And it makes even less sense, if you've decided to do that, to go to the next level and try to defeat a Republican who, upon entering the Congress after a victory in the special election, would be virtually guaranteed to cast more regular party-line votes than would the official GOP nominee.

That's the truly remarkable part of this whole story — look at all the polls taken in this race, and you see that if you combine the Scozzafava vote and the Hoffman vote, you've got a clear majority for one Republican candidate; why should it make a difference to the NRCC whether the Republican who represents the district is the officially-sanctioned (but very liberal) Republican, or the unofficially-sanctioned (but more mainstream conservative) Republican?

Answer: It should not. Either one is going to vote for a Republican for Speaker, and that's all the NRCC cares about — scratch that, should care about — in this instance.

Pete Sessions didn't make the choice of Dede Scozzafava, 11 GOP county chairmen in upstate New York made the choice.

Sessions could save his colleagues hundreds of thousands of dollars, and himself a couple of Excedrin headaches, if he would simply pull out of NY23 and let nature take its course -- without the propping up by the NRCC and RNC, the Scozzafava campaign would implode into the black hole that is its true nature, and leave Hoffman to defeat Owens.

Eh, but this is the same team that lost the special election in NY20 six months ago. Don't hold your breath.

DISCLAIMER: CQPolitics says that when I write about the politicians in my past, I have to turn the cards face up. When Tom Cole was chief of staff at the Republican National Committee, I worked under him as press secretary.

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CQ © 2009 All Rights Reserved | Congressional Quarterly Inc. 1255 22nd Street N.W. Washington, D.C. 20037 | 202-419-8500

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