“Tea party” activists say Tuesday’s elections show that the Republican Party needs conservatives for victory, but the results suggest solidarity is more important: unified Republicans steamrolled in Virginia, while they fractured in New York and lost a House seat that they had held for more than a century.
As the parties took stock Wednesday, Democrats said they’ll work to reconnect with the young voters and independents who lifted them in 2008 but who didn’t turn out this week.
Republicans, meanwhile, basked in Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial wins but warily eyed their right flank as conservative activists said they’ve put the party on notice that fealty to values matters.
“We plan to play in competitive primaries where we see either a reason to block someone from coming into Congress or a reason to advance someone representing our values to the Congress, the Senate, or governorships,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List and one of a host of conservative leaders who backed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in a special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District.
Mr. Hoffman did indeed block liberal Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava from winning the seat, but Democratic candidate Bill Owens topped both of them to win the district.
Conservatives may have already had an effect. Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told ABC News that his committee won’t spend money to try to hand-pick a particular candidate in contested primaries.
Republican Party leaders who had backed Mrs. Scozzafava until she withdrew and endorsed the Democrat blamed a bad nominating process for the rupture and pleaded for national party unity going forward.
“I don’t see a victory in losing seats. I’m not in the business of division and subtraction. I’m in the business of multiplication and addition,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, though he also called the battle between conservatives and Republicans a “phony fight” and blamed the press for inflaming it.
New York’s fractious special election had echoes of a fight Virginia Republicans had in the past decade - ever since a budget showdown between then-Gov. James S. Gilmore III and state Sen. John Chichester, both Republicans, resulted in a bitterly divided party. Mr. Gilmore wanted to pursue tax cuts while Mr. Chichester said tax cuts should wait while the state spent more on infrastructure.
That battle cost Republicans dearly in 2001, when they ceded the governor’s mansion to Democrat Mark Warner. Republicans continued to feud throughout Mr. Warner’s four-year term, which helped Democrat Tim Kaine win the executive spot in 2005.
But this year, Republicans unified early in Virginia, and it was Democrats who held a bruising three-way primary. When the dust settled Tuesday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnellcruised to victory over Democratic nominee R. Creigh Deeds.
Mr. McDonnell won Fairfax County and rolled up big victories in Prince William and Loudoun counties. He also won in nine of the state’s 11 congressional districts - a warning sign to four of the state’s six Democratic congressmen.
Democrats and Republicans alike cited Mr. McDonnell’s yearlong effort to unify his party as a factor.
“Bob McDonnell had found his voice a long time ago. He knew who he was. I think up in New York, when the congressman from up there left, the Republicans on a national level were still trying to find their voice,” said Daniel F. Drummond, former chairman of the Fairfax City Democratic Party and a current city council member.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat, whose district went for Mr. McDonnell, said it was “a huge advantage” for the former attorney general.
Mr. Connolly said he wouldn’t read too much into the results but said Democrats should take it as a warning they need to pass health care legislation if they want to reignite their own base voters.
Democrats on Capitol Hill said they don’t see the election as a judgment on President Obama, and as if to underscore that, the White House said the president didn’t watch the election returns Tuesday night.
Mr. Obama did call some of the winners on Wednesday.
“You had two very local elections. Elements of the Republican Party sought greatly to nationalize the election in New York, and they lost,” said press secretary Robert Gibbs.
Gary L. Bauer, president of American Values and a Hoffman supporter in New York, said Tuesday’s lesson is that base voters in both parties are irked at their national leaders. But he said conservatives aren’t advocating a third-party approach.
“I guess the bottom line for me is, I find great hope for next year in yesterday’s results, but the party leadership should also get the message that nothing’s foreordained, and they’ve got to work over the next year - that means bringing in the people in the tea parties, the people that marched on Washington, the values conservatives, which are a different group.”
Mrs. Dannenfelser said the Republican Party needs to respect the force conservatives can be when they’re pulling for Republicans.
“The real power of the Republican Party right now is in this burgeoning engine that is the conservative grass-roots movement. And the more out of touch GOP candidates are from their natural base, the more likely it is they’ll lose,” she said. “If we have to have that conversation in a high-profile way, that’s OK with us.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, one of the party leaders who took heat for backing Mrs. Scozzafava, said in a blog Wednesday that a party civil war would be disastrous.
“Conservatives can take comfort in having driven a liberal Republican out of the race. But everyone on our side has to be troubled that a Republican seat went to a Democrat and Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi is one vote stronger because of our division,” he wrote.
The New York loss continued an embarrassing losing streak for Republicans in special House elections. They lost three contested elections last year, and another one in New York earlier this year.
Democrats said the result is a warning to individual Republicans who backed Mr. Hoffman.
Democrats in Minnesota said Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, will suffer for his endorsement of the conservative, and a liberal group, Stand Up America Political Action Committee, said it would redouble efforts to unseat conservatives in Congress such as Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
“NY-23 was the beginning of a national referendum on extremism that will end when we defeat Bachmann this fall,” said Jesse Berney, a co-founder of the PAC.
Jennifer Haberkorn, Matthew Mosk and Jon Ward contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.