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Froma Harrop: Tea Party Carpetbaggers Run Out of New York

Outsiders show how to sweep in and take over a local political race, but locals fight back

The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party had the perfect strategy for upstate New York’s 23rd congressional district:

Froma Harrop
Froma Harrop

» 1. Support a candidate who doesn’t live in the district — in this case, conservative Douglas Hoffman. Savage the local Republican choice, Dede Scozzafava, and hound her into dropping out.

» 2. Condemn the local Republicans who had picked the moderate Scozzafava as being “insiders.” And have the finger-pointers be Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. (Guess no one would ever accuse them of being insiders in upstate New York.)

» 3. Refer to the issues that concern voters in the “North Country” district — dredging the St. Lawrence River, building a new highway — as “parochial.” Have that term be flung by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, now a right-wing gadfly — and in response to distress shown by the Watertown Daily Times editorial board that Hoffman knew nothing of local matters.

» 4. Bring Armey into the editorial board meeting.

» 5. Have Palin make flashy sweeps through upstate New York, spreading voter repellent around this politically moderate district.

Put it all together, and you have the perfect strategy for turning a congressional seat that had been in Republican hands for well more than a century into a Democratic seat. As recently as last month, polls showed Scozzafava trouncing both Democrat Bill Owens and conservative Hoffman in the polls. Not an easy race for Republicans to lose, but the Tea Party nihilists showed how.

A lesson here for Republicans, and Democrats as well, is that Americans don’t live on cable television or talk radio. These media invented the Tea Party movement and egg on its followers, who are angry for reasons not necessarily related to politics. This crowd, after all, is pretty darn colorful and makes for good entertainment.

Americans live in real places, and their candidates tend to be familiar figures they have coffee with. Scozzafava had served as a mayor and state assemblywoman. She was not some cartoon character on which the opposition could safely launch its childish attacks.

No electorate approves of carpetbaggers. If any word describes what Tea-Baggers tried to pull in upstate New York, it was an outsiders’ takeover of a local race.

Hoffman clearly spent more time visiting with Glenn Beck than reading the local papers. And his Tea-Baggers were also moneybaggers. On Election Day, when Hoffman seemed to have a slight edge, the Club for Growth proudly announced out of Washington that it had dumped more than $1 million into his campaign coffers.

“Hoffman’s cash didn’t come from somebody in Hermon or Hopkinton or Adams Center, or from anywhere that cares about the country,” wrote Jeffrey Savitskie, a Watertown Daily Times editor who had planned to vote for Scozzafava, but then moved to Owens. “It came from folks who know so little about the North Country that they would likely believe it if you told them Alexandria Bay was an exotic dancer.”

Independents should welcome the outcome in upstate New York, not because a Democrat won, but because the U.S. two-party system needs to offer them a real choice. It can’t please them that New York state now will have only two Republicans in its 29-member congressional delegation, or that New England has none.

The Republican Party has been torn by a civil war between its establishment and insurgents on the right. The battle of New York’s 23rd could be the Gettysburg that determines the winner. The right-wingers lost badly in what was a reliably Republican district.

But questions remain whether the Tea-Baggers will retreat — and more unsettling for mainstream Republicans, who the Tea-Baggers thought they were fighting.

Froma Harrop is an independent voice on politics, economics and culture, and blogs on RealClearPolitics.com. She is also a member of the editorial board at The Providence (R.I.) Journal. Click here to contact her at Creators.com.

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