How do you elect a Democrat to a Congressional seat for the first since before the Civil War? Well, a GOP civil war of sorta helps a lot.
Democrat Bill Owens won the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional district Tuesday night, marking the first time since 1858 that a Democrat has taken that seat. But Owens didn't defeat a Republican to win the seat -- he beat Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman.
Now, I know what you're thinking ... what's the difference between the Republican and Conservative parties? Apparently, the Republican isn't conservative enough.
Hoffman, who doesn't even live in NY-23 and has been criticized for not knowing about the local issues that matter to voters in upstate New York. But that didn't seem to matter to such conservative voices as Sarah Palin, Fred Thompson and Glenn Beck -- who all endorsed Hoffman over local Republican candidate Dierdre Scozzafava.
Translation: Scozzafava, a moderate, was too liberal for the GOP, so the bulk of the party's public voices backed the Conservative Party candidate, who was eerily close in ideology to the tea party movement that has been so prevalent and mocked since April.
In short, this turned into a civil war within the conservative movement. It's not entirely surprising -- political parties usually go through periods of unrest and identity confusion after rough election losses -- but the outcome is perhaps of national interest. With only 20 percent of the country willingly identifying as Republican, the tea party movement's efforts to neutralize a moderate Republican -- and essentially handing what was a "safe" GOP seat to the Democrats -- should serve as a lesson for the GOP.
The message? Moderates are not welcome in the GOP -- which Scozzafava proved when she dropped out of the race on Saturday and endorsed Owens. There was speculation about this theme during the presidential election last year -- when John McCain selected far right-wing Palin as his running mate, while Barack Obama managed to get the Democratic base, on top of independents and even some moderate Republicans.
Though Republicans fared well Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey, the NY-23 race is probably more telling for the party. Chris Christie won in New Jersey largely because incumbent Jon Corzine was wildly unpopular, while Bob McDonnell took Virginia easily because of his stellar, focused campaign.
But NY-23 could loom large as we approach the 2010 midterms, mostly because of the fracturing within the GOP. Some pundits are drawing comparisons to 1994, when Republicans regained control of Congress with Bill Clinton in the White House, but I don't remember such schizophrenia within the party back then. How does the GOP keep its base energized, while still reaching out to moderates and independents?
I'm not so sure it can. And after the drama unfolding in NY-23, I'm not even sure the GOP wants to. The Republican Party has become so ideologically-driven that it no longer represents a significant portion of the American population. McDonnell was able to win in Virginia in part because he successfully painted himself as a moderate -- even if his past showed him to be anything but.
I'm not saying Democrats won't lose seats in 2010 -- particularly in health care reform is weak or fails. But if the GOP can't get its act together and find a way to have its cake and eat it too (i.e., appeal to the base and independents), it won't win back the number of seats it expects. The Republican Party has become so divisive that it's started to turn on its own, and if the Democrats are smart (which is certainly in question), they can take advantage of it.
But one thing NY-23 has taught us ... watching the GOP tear itself apart is pretty entertaining.