This race was a damaging setback for the hard right. Hoffman had the energetic support of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox as well as big bucks from their political auxiliaries. Furthermore, Hoffman was running not only in a district that Rove himself described as "very Republican" but one that fits the demographics of the incredibly shrinking G.O.P. The 23rd is far whiter than America as a whole -- 93 percent versus 74 -- with tiny sprinklings of blacks, Hispanics and Asians. It has few immigrants. It's rural. Its income and education levels are below the norm. Only if the district were situated in Dixie -- or Utah -- could it be a more perfect fit for the narrow American demographic where the McCain-Palin ticket had its sole romps last year.Blah, blah, blah. Hoffman began the campaign with near-zero name-ID in the district and, by his own admission, was not the sort of "poised" and "polished" candidate who attracts voters by the telegenic force of his personal charisma.
If the tea party right can't win there, imagine how it might fare in the nation where most Americans live. . . .
Frank Rich didn't bother talking to the Hoffman campaign staff who, the day after the election, explained to me how the GOP establishment candidate Dede Scozzafava's dropping out (and endorsing the Democrat, Bill Owens) hurt their candidate.
Once Hoffman established himself as the conservative choice, this left Dede with a rump vote of liberals, personal friends, labor allies, etc., who amounted to less than 20% of the electorate, whereas Hoffman had more than 40%, and Owens was in the vicinity of 35% -- the usual Democratic vote in the 23rd District.
Until the morning of Oct. 31, then, Hoffman was set to win with something like a 44% plurality. Dede's withdrawal and endorsement of Owens, however, threw that calculus into disarray. It also created havoc with the Hoffman campaign's messaging effort. As of Sunday, there were still ads running on TV bashing Dede and depicting the election as a three-way contest. The Hoffman campaign was unable to get those ads stopped and replaced with new ads; meanwhile, the DCCC dumped $1 million in negative attack ads -- depicting Hoffman as a callous greedhead who wanted to ship jobs overseas -- into the local TV market in the final days of the campaign.
All of which is to say that there were unique factors at play in the final days of the NY23 campaign that argue against Frank Rich's claim that Hoffman's narrow loss represents an emphatic, decisive and final failure of the "tea party right."
Rich's biggest error is his mistaken impression of the Hoffman campaign as representing a narrow ideological sect. Anyone who spent much time at all talking to Hoffman supporters in the 23rd District -- you could ask John McCormack or Dave Weigel about this -- would tell you that his candidacy drew strong support from every component of the conservative movement.
The lessons of NY23 are really more tactical than ideological. There were about a dozen top people on Team Hoffman who are privy to the inner rationale of the campaign, its methods and strategies. This esoteric understanding of NY23 will be missed or misunderstood by those who view the campaign in a superficial way.
Hoffman's candidacy provides a template for a different style of Republican campaign, one that bases its appeal on a grassroots "outsider" argument, effectively employs online messaging and fundraising, and draws on the Tea Party volunteers for organizational "boots on the ground" support.
What was learned from the NY23 experience will be applied first in a series of GOP primaries -- including the Florida Senate primary -- and subsequently in the 2010 general election. If the GOP stages a comeback in next year's mid-terms, the Hoffman campaign will be seen in retrospect as a turning point.