So what? So -- he's running against a fairly liberal Republican, Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, and a Democrat, lawyer and military veteran Bill Owens, in a congressional district vacated by a beloved, long-serving Republican who left for a key defense position in the Obama administration. In theory, a Conservative Party candidate could win if the Republican and Democrat eat into each other's bases. Polls put Hoffman in third place now, but the trend is favorable.
Hoffman plays on several levels. He's avowedly conservative down the line: no to gay marriage, no to abortion, no to tax hikes, yes to strong defense, no on the stimulus bill, no to cap and trade. But importantly, for these times, he's populist: he gives a big, loud "no" to bank bailouts.
So -- he's running as Howard Dean ran when Democrats were the out-party and when activists believed that Democratic congressional leaders capitulated all too quickly to the Republican Party. Dean, you'll recall, famously began an early campaign speech by insisting he represented the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. Hoffman doesn't have the luxury of running as a Republican, but his appeal is similar in kind: he's running against Republicans who are Democratic-lite. Scozzafava has been endorsed by the inside-the-beltway crowd, which is one reason why conservatives upset with the National Republican Congressional Committee's choices are flocking to Hoffman.
In that way, he fulfills a fantasy of those activists who believe that the real problem with Republicans is that they sacrifice principals for expediency. If only Republicans would act like true conservatives and proclaim their conservatism loudly and proudly -- they'd win. And -- and -- this is a district in New York State, not the South. Even Republicans who believe that the party's core deficiency is insufficient ideological rectitude know that the GOP has a message problem. "He is reflective of what is going on in the nation," his senior communications director, Rob Ryan, said. "He's a private citizen who had enough. That's reflective of all the people we see marching down in Washington, at the Tea Parties and events like that across the country."
To Hoffman, the race is a referendum on the future of the Republican Party and the first ten months of the Obama administration. If he loses, which is more likely than not, forget the latter. But he's already had an impact on the former.
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is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.