What If Hoffman Loses?

National conservative figures got involved in New York's 23rd district special election, and they got involved in a big way. As Politics Daily's Jill Lawrence points out, they eventually succeeded in muscling the Republican candidate--the pro-abortion-rights, pro-same-sex-marriage Dede Scozzafava--out of the race with a slew of endorsements, money, and criticism.

Now we are left with a race between Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, upon whom the hopes and dreams of the conservative movement are pinned. He's an acolyte of Glenn Beck's 9/12 quasi-tea-party movement: having signed Beck's 9/12 candidate pledge, he's an official 9/12 candidate--part of a (possibly) new breed of conservative that sits to the right of the national GOP, and which, could, some think, rise to prominence in 2010 if grassroots conservatives sustain their energy...and if that energy is something candidates can thrive on enough, at least, to think that they have a legitimate shot at winning seats in the House of Representatives.

So what if Hoffman loses?

Here are my predictions, anyway:

1. Newt Gingrich looks like a genius. Gingrich has been the one top-tier GOP figure to stump for Scozzafava, arguing that the party needs to pursue moderation for the sake of electability. It's a pragmatic argument that other conservatives have rejected. If Hoffman loses, Newt will have been right: that a conservative third-party candidate wasn't electable in this race, and now another Democrat has joined the House.

2. It won't matter that Newt looks like a genius. At least not at first. The conservative movement is not interested in his electability argument: the wave of anti-tax, anti-spending, and anti-Obama sentiment that makes up the tea-partiers, 9/12-ers, and the rest of the conservative grassroots movement is not, at this point, interested in questioning its own political viability. It's about ideas. It's a movement that's still in the fermenting stages, after the people involved found out, over the course of the summer, that other people felt the same way as they did, and that there was an outlet for them to express their ideas at protests and Democratic town-hall events. Gingrich will not become more popular among conservatives because of this.

3. We'll talk about NY-23, for the next year, as The Failed Doug Hoffman Experiment. Democrats will be quick to harp on this, and, internally, Republican-establishment strategists will look back on NY-23 as an experiment in third-party viability, and, more significantly, the viability of Hoffman's brand of conservatism--whether a candidate this far to the right, a third-party candidate without the backing of the party establishment, can win. If it's a failed experiment, establishment-Republican types will take away this lesson: conservative energy is great, but elections are about finding a candidate that fits the district, can appeal to more voters than the other guy, and can win.

3. Democrats will accuse the GOP of utter dysfunctionality. This will be their talking point, as it already has become today, following Scozzafava's drop: that the GOP is in utter disarray. The party's leaders couldn't agree on a candidate and, ultimately, the GOP self-destructed, they will say.

4. Grassroots activists and conservative ideologues won't be too bothered. Here's why: an off-year special election in the upper northeast corner of the country is obscure, to begin with, and its result won't, necessarily, be felt as a psychic aftershock outside Washington, DC and the 23rd district itself. More importantly, a three-way race is complicated. There are a lot of ins, a lot of outs. Scozzafava actually endorsed Owens, and could, if one is so inclined, be credited with driving some of the votes his way. Even more importantly: as I said above, the conservative grassroots movement is about ideology and expression. If there's one thing ideologues don't deal well with, it's cognitive dissonance. Grassroots, Glenn Beck-style conservatives aren't quite ready to be proven wrong, I don't think, or absorb lessons of viability...they'll simply move on, many of them finding a convenient reason to ignore Hoffman's loss as a bad sign. And they've already succeeded in defeating the Republican, which is a victory in and of itself. To them, it has already proved that a conservative upstart can take primacy over a GOP-establishment-endorsed candidate.

5. The real loser will be Marco Rubio and any other conservative candidates waiting in the wings. The loss will be one of opportunity cost: a Hoffman sin would serve to bolster the notion that conservative candidates are the new hot thing for 2010. Rubio, who is running a conservative primary challenge to Gov. Charlie Crist (R) in Florida's Senate race, was Hoffman before Hoffman came along: a symbol for challenging the GOP establishment and pragmatic, electable centrism. If Hoffman wins, top-level Republican figures will flock to Rubio just as they flocked to Hoffman, with a few more jumping on the bandwagon. If Hoffman loses, Rubio won't get as much of a surge.

6. No matter what else happens, election night won't be a big victory for conservatives. Without a win for Hoffman, conservatives will be looking at two gubernatorial victories, in New Jersey and Virginia. The New Jersey win will allow the GOP to trumpet an expansion of its map into traditionally blue territory, but neither of these candidates match the brand of conservatism Hoffman brings to the table. In Virginia, Bob McDonnell talks about education, jobs, and transportation: he's hardly made his campaign about tea-party sentiments. Conservatives need Hoffman to claim that Tuesday night's results prove their point.