WASHINGTON — The triumph of conservative forces over the Republican Party establishment in upstate New York has emboldened like-minded activists around the country, and it could drive the GOP sharply to the right as it lines up candidates for the 2010 midterm congressional elections.
The rebellion that drove a moderate Republican off the ballot in a special House election today is sending a clear message to the party leadership and its candidates: Ignore the conservative grass roots at your peril.
That message is likely to resonate in the coming months in several congressional primaries and in races where third-party challenges are springing up and threatening to divide the Republican vote.
In Columbus, Ohio, a conservative has decided to run for the House because he does not see enough difference between Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy and her leading Republican opponent.
In southern Virginia, where Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello has been expected to face a tough fight for a second term, a conservative is campaigning against a Republican he considers a RINO -- Republican in Name Only.
The most prominent battlefield on which the conservative wildfire is spreading is Florida, where Gov. Charlie Crist, the GOP front-runner for the Senate nomination in 2010, faces a spirited challenge from a conservative former state House speaker, Marco Rubio.
That's why all eyes in the party will be turned toward the northern reaches of New York in today's off-year elections. In the state's 23rd Congressional District, voters face a choice between Democratic lawyer Bill Owens and businessman Doug Hoffman, who is running on the Conservative Party ticket.
Hoffman's persistent charges that the Republican Party's hand-picked candidate, state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, was too liberal -- an assertion echoed by conservative activists nationwide -- resulted in her dropping out of the race Saturday.
"If Hoffman wins this, it will be like dropping a bomb into the center of the Republican caucus," said David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union. "Conservative leaders are standing up and saying, 'On to Florida.' " Even if Hoffman doesn't win, experts say waves will rock the GOP.
"Win or lose, the conservatives will be emboldened and will look for other fights," said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst of congressional elections. "I have no doubt in my mind that there are more to come of these tests."
Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the New York election sent a message that was perhaps more troublesome to Democrats than Republicans: that the anger in the electorate is clearly not a mandate for the Democratic agenda.
"While the circumstances in this race are unusual, the one constant factor at play -- both locally and nationally -- has been that independent voters continue to peel away from the Democrats and [are] gravitating toward the right," Spain said.
Other major elections today include a race in Virginia, where Democrats have been struggling to retain the governor's office and Republican Bob McDonnell has been leading in the polls. In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine is in a tight reelection battle against Republican Chris Christie, a former prosecutor. A third-party candidate in that race could affect the result.
And in California, the other special House election today will fill the seat of Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo), who was appointed President Obama's undersecretary of State for arms control and international security. The Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, is leading in that race over his GOP opponent, David Harmer.
In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is expected to easily win a third term.
The election in upstate New York has distinctive features that have given Hoffman an unusual advantage. Because only two congressional districts are holding special elections in this political off-year, Hoffman attracted unusually intense nationwide attention.
He won endorsements from Sarah Palin and other conservative celebrities, as well as a flood of campaign cash from outside the district. That kind of spotlight will be unavailable to outside candidates next year who will be part of a 435-district congressional election.
What is more, Scozzafava's nomination was especially provocative to conservatives because she supports abortion rights, gay marriage and greater leverage for labor unions.
Conservatives' irritation at national Republican leaders may be more potent and consequential in the 2010 elections. The third-party challenges in the Ohio and Virginia House races come from long-shot outsiders. But if they gain even a modicum of traction, those candidates could undercut Republican strength against two of the party's top targets: Kilroy and Perriello are first-term Democrats who were elected by a hair's breadth last year.
In primary battles within the GOP, ideological battle lines are being drawn through Senate races from coast to coast. In California, moderate Republican Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, is expected to face conservative state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine in a bid to lead the party's fight to unseat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
In Utah, GOP Sen. Robert F. Bennett faces a stiff primary challenge from the right, in part because of conservative anger over his support for last year's Wall Street bailout bill.
In Illinois, some conservatives have questioned the credentials of moderate Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, who is running for an open Senate seat. But many party leaders believe he is in the best position to win in Obama's state.