Yesterday, I referred everyone to this useful caution from John Sides not to search for the Real Meaning of Tuesday's elections.
I don't really want to take it back, certainly not as far the actual results are concerned, but the events in the NY-23 special are, in fact, significant. I don't think I've blogged about this yet...it's a heretofore safe GOP district, in which the local Republicans nominated a seemingly strong candidate, the local Member of the State Assembly.
And then all hell broke loose. The GOP candidate, Dede Scozzafava, was conservative by NY Republican standards, but certainly not by national Republican standards. A third-party candidate, however, was sufficiently conservative. Special elections get lots of attention, and in this case national conservatives descended on upstate New York on behalf of the Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman. Now, just a few days before the election, we get news that Scozzafava has suspended her campaign as polls show that she's fallen into a distant third place.
I don't think that the actual results of the voting on Tuesday are particularly important, but the process within the Republican party certainly is important. There's no question but that national conservatives are increasingly using primary elections (and, in this case, extra-primary processes) to enforce rigid issue-position consistency. NY-23 is important as an example of this trend, and as a very visible warning to prospective candidates: keeping national conservatives happy is essential for a career within the GOP, regardless of what local incentives apply. It's also, of course, a very visible warning to current incumbents that national conservatives are willing to risk losing seats in order to enforce discipline. Hoffman may or may not wind up winning, but it's clear that keeping a Dem out of office was a lower priority for national conservatives than preventing a moderate Republican from serving in Congress.
I should say that I'm having some difficulty finding a good term to describe exactly what national conservatives are enforcing. In NY-23, it appears to be issue positions. But in the upcoming Florida Senate primary, national conservatives seem especially upset with Charlie Crist because he appeared with Barack Obama and approved of stimulus money coming into Florida. The appearance portion of that, which was really what got conservatives upset, seems more like a partisan complaint. Yet it's hard to use "partisan" in the NY-23 case, since national conservatives there showed no loyalty to the properly nominated GOP candidate. I'm also reluctant to use the word "ideology" since the issue-positions that are enforced seem, to me at least, to be at least as much a function of partisanship as they are of any kind of intellectual consistency.
At any rate, I do think that the ability of national conservatives to enforce discipline through GOP primaries is a very important story in American politics right now, and it's very reasonable to point at the NY-23 special as an important case of it.