Why NY-23 Is More Important Than N.J. and Va. Governor Races

Republicans are rubbing their hands in glee—and Democrats wringing theirs—at the struggles of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia. Both of these governor's seats carry great power and would be impressive coups for the GOP, but from a national level, they're really most important for citizens of New Jersey and Virginia. The race the nation should be watching is a special election in upstate New York.

On the gubernatorial level, Republican Bob McDonnell looks to have the upper hand in Virginia, while incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine may eke out a win in New Jersey but will only do so after embarrassing 11th-hour revelations about opponent Chris Christie, attacks on Christie's weight, and help from an independent, third-party challenger. But regardless of who wins, these races aren't really referendums on Barack Obama—they're referendums on the corruption-racked Garden State and the economic future of the Old Dominion. The New York race, however, will provide some hints as to whether Democrats can hold on to voters who went for Obama in 2008 and show what path the right wing might choose to regain relevance.

The race is to replace Rep. John McHugh, a Republican who left his seat representing New York's 23rd district to become Secretary of the Army. The district has elected Republicans to Congress since 1993 and voted for George W. Bush twice--although Obama took it in 2008--so it might seem like an easy keep. Not so. Conservative voters are bitterly divided between Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava and Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. That makes the race different from the New Jersey campaign, in which potential spoiler Chris Daggett, who is expected to draw votes from both his Democratic and Republican opponents, is running a centrist campaign that repudiates both major parties' performance in the state.

What's on the line in NY-23? A poll released Thursday showed Democrat Bill Owens with a slight lead in the race, with Scozzafava and Hoffman favored by 29 percent and 23 percent of voters, respectively. Predictions of 2010 losses aside, an Owens victory would give Democrats one more vote in the House of Representatives for the time being.

And regardless of whether Scozzafava keeps Hoffman from being a spoiler, the campaign has already bared the divisions in the Republican Party over its direction. An assemblywoman in the state legislature, Scozzafava is pro-gay marriage and pro-choice. She got a big boost last week when former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich endorsed her (other endorsers include, um, the founder of Daily Kos), which didn't please conservative bloggers; Red State's Erick Erickson declared Gingrich's endorsement the end of his 2012 presidential chances (the post has disappeared, but here's a cached version).

Hoffman, meanwhile, has gotten support from former House leader Dick Armey, former senator Fred Thompson, and others. Their main reason for supporting him seems to be . . . well, that he isn't Dede Scozzafava. But his platform is reliably conservative: anti-abortion, in favor of traditional marriage, pro-gun, and anti-bailout.

The race gets stranger and stranger every day. Last night, Scozzafava's camp apparently called the police on a Weekly Standard reporter who came to a campaign event. The two camps differ over what happened at the event, but the fierce sniping in the conservative blogosphere is a troubling sign of the deeper disagreements roiling conservatives as they try to regroup from the 2006 and 2008 elections.

If Scozzafava pulls out a surprise win, it will suggest that Republicans can profit at the polls if they veer left on social issues. If, on the other hand, the poll numbers hold and Owens defeats both Hoffman and Scozzafava, it will only encourage more and fiercer internecine squabbles. Without a win, it will be unclear whether moderation or ideology is more electorally potent, and with bitter divisions among leading Republicans, it won't be clear what's most philosophically sound, either. Democrats, meanwhile, may take pleasure and an extra seat from the fight, but won't have really done much to proven they've got staying power—only that they got lucky. These are the questions that will play a major role in 2010 and 2012—as opposed to, say, Chris Christie's weight.