A group of protestors gather at Totem Square in Sitka, Alaska, Wednesday, April 15, 2009. Whipped up by conservative commentators and bloggers, tens of thousands of protesters staged "tea parties" around the country to tap into the collective angst stirred up by a bad economy, government spending and bailouts.
A group of protestors gather at Totem Square in Sitka, Alaska, Wednesday, April 15, 2009. Whipped up by conservative commentators and bloggers, tens of thousands of protesters staged "tea parties" around the country to tap into the collective angst stirred up by a bad economy, government spending and bailouts. James Poulson/AP
Richard Viguerie, the legendary hard-right activist who spent much of the past decade arguing that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were too liberal, now declares that the days of even the most minimal moderation are now over in the Republican Party.
"Tea Party Activists Are the New GOP," says Viguerie.
There is little reason to argue with the man whose direct-mail campaigning funded the rise of the Republican right in the late 1970s and who grumbled loudly when Newt Gingrich, Bush, Cheney and Republican leaders tried to soften the party's roughest edges.
Viguerie isn't grumbling now.
He's celebrating. And rightly so.
Moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava, the party's nominee in Tuesday's special election for an open New York congressional seat, has suspended her campaign. And with that move, the new "new right" — which Viguerie describes as "Tea Party activists, town hall protesters, and conservatives across the country" — can claim a clear victory in its struggle to define the GOP as a far more extreme party than anything envisioned by Bush, Cheney or Gingrich.
Scozzafava, a state legislator, had the Republican ballot line and support from the party apparatus in Washington. But Tea Party and Town Hall activists — and their mentors and funders such as former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and the powerful Club for Growth — threw their support behind Doug Hoffman, a more right-wing contender running on the New York Conservative Party line.
Scozzafava took a beating for her support for gay rights and abortion rights, her alliances with organized labor and her sympathy for the plight of the unemployed.
The attacks were brutal and they dried up financial support for the GOP nominee's campaign — even though she began as a presumed frontrunner in New York's historically Republican 23rd district, where the seat went vacant after President Obama nominated moderate Republican Congressman John McHugh to serve as Secretary of the Army.
Reactionary Republicans, led by 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, threw their support to Hoffman.
With her poll numbers tanking, Scozzafava finally gave up with just three days to go before Tuesday's election.
Now that the GOP nominee is out of the running, Hoffman is well positioned to compete with Democratic newcomer Bill Owens in a race to fill a seat that has not elected a Democrat in more than a century.
Scozzafava said she would vote in Tuesday's special election for Democrat Owens, issuing a statement that read:
"'You know me, and throughout my career, I have been always been an independent voice for the people I represent. I have stood for our honest principles, and a truthful discussion of the issues, even when it cost me personally and politically.
It is in this spirit that I am writing to let you know I am supporting Bill Owens for Congress and urge you to do the same,' Scozzafava added. 'It's not in the cards for me to be your representative, but I strongly believe Bill is the only candidate who can build upon John McHugh's lasting legacy in the U.S. Congress.'"
No matter what its contours, the Hoffman-Owens result will be a footnote to the Scozzafava-Hoffman saga.
As GOP strategist Paul Erickson told the Washington Post with regard to the latter struggle: "This is entirely a battle over the definition and winning formula for Republican candidates going into the midterm elections of 2010 and beyond."
Erickson's point is well taken.
Republicans who have tried to move party back toward the political mainstream, after a three-year losing streak that has cost the GOP control of the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate and the White House, are frustrated — and a little bit scared. As Gingrich, who backed the decision of local Republican leaders to nominate Scozzafava, explained: "I think we are going to get into a very difficult environment around the country if suddenly conservative leaders decide they are going to anoint people without regard to local primaries and local choices."
Republican strategist John Weaver, a veteran aide to 2008 presidential nominee John McCain, echoed that theme.
"Because of what's happened, we're going to have some mischief-making, which is not positive for a party that needs to really focus on other fundamentals in order to make a comeback," explains Weaver.
But Gingrich, Weaver and other advocates for mainstreaming the GOP have been beaten. Badly.
And Viguerie and his crew get the bragging rights.
Calling the developments in the New York race "an earthquake in American politics," the right-wing strategist predicted that it would be "the first of many challenges to establishment Republicans that we will see for the 2010 elections and beyond."
Viguerie is right.
And it is not just the party of Lincoln or the old "Rockefeller Republicans" that is being broken.
Gingrich and those conservatives who argued for broadening the party's base have suffered a serious blow.
The GOP is now, as Richard Viguerie says, the party of "the Tea Parties and their candidates."
The question, of course, is whether a GOP defined by "the Tea Parties and their candidates" can compete not just in New York's 23rd district — where the party has always won — but across the great expanse of a country where the party has in recent years been losing.
If Viguerie and his compatriots are correct, it is not just the Republican Party but America that is about to take the most rightwing turn in its history.
If Viguerie and his compatriots are wrong, the Grand Old Party could be turning toward a permanent minority status that only the most enthusiastic Democrats dared imagine.
Gingrich, ever the wise analyst, is anticipating — or perhaps the proper word is "dreading" — the latter result.
Said the former speaker of the GOP: "This makes life more complicated from the standpoint of this: If we get into a cycle where every time one side loses, they run a third-party candidate, we'll make Pelosi speaker for life and guarantee Obama's re-election."