Today's Washington Times has a story by Ralph Hallow about NY-23. One of the things Ralph discussed was Newt Gingrich's struggles with the race. He quotes Newt:
He said Mr. Hoffman's "rise is a result of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Fox News, the Club for Growth, Gov. [Sarah] Palin and [Minnesota Gov. Tim] Pawlenty and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and virtually the entire national conservative movement joining with Mike Long, whose Conservative Party, a very established organization, which won its first big race 39 years ago."
It is striking to me that Tim Pawlenty is the only presumptive 2012 candidate in that list, unless Sarah Palin really gets in, but there are no indications that she is. After a Presidential primary in which Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee fought out for the conservative mantle (to a stalemate, I might add), they both were absent from this battle.
You see, NY-23 is the first big fight of the 21st century for the conservative movement. It is important to remember that this movement is about moving the to the right by moving its governing coalition to the right. That means, by definition, the Republican Party because it is the vehicle of the center-right coalition in American politics. There can be no doubt that, whatever the result on Tuesday or afterwards, that the leadership of the GOP has been chastened. Marc Ambinder's analyzes the race and concludes that Scozzafava's social liberalism was necessary to create the conditions on the ground for the Conservative Party to reach out to national groups. However, ultimately, the Club for Growth, responding to her positions on card-check, the stimulus, etc., funded Hoffman and really made this happen. In other words, the two key components of the conservative movement came together in perfect complimentarity.
So we have the definitional fight for the conservative movement, post-Bush. And only Pawlenty shows up at the fight? But for the movement, the question is as much "are you with us on the fight" as it is "are you with us on issues". Let's consider how this impacts Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, both of whom declined being in the fight over the last several weeks.
Let's take Huckabee first. Mike Huckabee not only didn't endorse Doug Hoffman, Huckabee took $20,000 away from Hoffman's GOTV effort (which tells me that he isn't running, but ...):
Huckabee, who according to Upstate Committee sources is receiving a five-figure fee in excess of $20,000 for his appearance, has refused to personally endorse Hoffman, who is pro-life and signed the "no-tax" pledge in August before his announced candidacy, and has informed Hoffman that HuckPAC will not support him either. Some Conservative Party officials believe Huckabee's fee is intended for his PAC. Ironically, the dinner is held to honor conservatives who exemplify conservative principles.
This offers a(nother) critique of Huckabee from the movement perspective. Huckabee is particularly vulnerable here. In 2008, no electorally significant critique damaged Huckabee within his base of evangelical voters. Why? I think that Ramesh Ponnuru nailed it in a discussion of Romney's campaign:
Romney’s problem was not that he is a Mormon. It was that he is not an evangelical. A strong plurality of evangelicals “would have backed Huckabee against anybody — Mormon, Buddhist, or Catholic,” says another former Romney adviser. “They were voting for one of their own.” To attribute Romney’s loss in Iowa to anti-Mormon prejudice from evangelicals, he says, is like attributing Romney’s victories in Utah and Nevada to Mormons’ hostility to people from all other faiths. But this adviser reaches the same conclusion as his colleagues who blamed anti-Mormonism: Romney should not spend as much time and resources on Iowa next time.
In other words, the options for Huckabee voters were to go to Romney. Not going to happen. But guess what? Tim Pawlenty is an evangelical. Indeed, during the VP speculation in 2008, the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody argued, "Pawlenty may be the one guy to help McCain with working class moderates AND socially conservative Evangelicals." So he can genuinely compete with Huckabee or someone similar to his right.
Ramesh notes that Romney ran as the candidate of the conservative movement (and I would point out that Fred Thompson's candidacy was about the fundamental mismatch of Romney the man and Romney the candidate of the movement):
All these advisers may, however, be looking at Romney’s options too narrowly. Romney’s strategy in the last campaign was not to run as the social conservatives’ candidate. It was to run as the movement-conservative candidate. Throughout the primary he claimed that he best represented what he called “the three legs of the stool” holding up conservatism, with the legs representing conservative positions on social issues, economics, and foreign policy. The attempt to rally his party’s right made a certain strategic sense. Giuliani and John McCain started the primary season with higher profiles than Romney and, in different ways, represented the party’s left wing. Running to the right thus presented Romney with an opportunity.
Romney, in not playing in NY-23 has, in some important sense, laid the groundwork for a(nother) criticism of him as the candidate of the conservative movement. How can he be the candidate of the movement but duck out on the first major fight of the movement. (2nd, if you count healthcare, which doesn't cut nicely for Mitt...) Can he really run from the same location that he had earlier? No. This suggests that he is taking the route that Ramesh almost recommends by moving to the left end of the party and/or the establishment. (I distinguish between these)
This time Romney could follow a different path. There are no prospective McCains or Giulianis, no heavyweights from the left or even the center of the party. Instead of running as the movement conservative in the race, Romney could run as a party-establishment candidate who is acceptable to the Right. That strategy wouldn’t require him to move left on the issues. But it would entail, among other things, taking fewer jabs at the other candidates for not being conservative enough (jabbing them for having bad ideas would still be in season). It would entail advertising Romney’s conservatism less. The policies could still be conservative — but he would promote them as good ideas more than as conservative ones.
I don't know how this plays out. Romney running from establishment/left of the party, and Pawlenty running to the right? Perhaps. There's another angle that Ramesh notes:
To be a strong candidate, finally, Romney has to address one weakness that has not gotten much attention: his lack of appeal to middle-income and low-income voters. The exit polls from the primaries tell a consistent story. In Iowa and Florida, he won pluralities only among those voters who made more than $100,000 a year. In New Hampshire, voters had to make more than $150,000 before they started favoring him. Michigan, where Romney’s father was governor, was the great exception: Romney won among every income group above $30,000 a year. If Romney can’t find an economic message and a way of making it that appeals to middle-class voters, he may as well save his money and not bother running.
Again, we have Pawlenty's strong suit: reaching out to the middle class and working class.
The field is set. A working-to-middle class Midwestern candidate with strong evangelical roots running against a white-shoe Northeast wealthy candidate with strong western roots. This will be an interesting battle.