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a loss is still a big win for 3rd-party advocates

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 04, 2009

Yesterday was Election Day in many places across America. Although there were no contests in my own district, an election is always exciting to a political junkie like myself. This was certainly no exception.

There were several high-profile contests. In Maine, pro-family voters reversed their legislators' decision to recognize same-sex marriage. In Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans won key gubernatorial contests. But from my perspective the most exciting race of all-- in fact, the most exciting race since the Reagan years-- was a Congressional contest in upstate New York, where a 3rd-party candidate-- a Republican running on the Conservative Party ticket-- very nearly managed the upset of the season.

Disclaimer #1: The thoughts that follow represent my own political opinions. I do not intend to suggest that mine are the only views compatible with the Catholic faith. Many intelligent readers-- certainly including loyal Catholics-- will disagree with me. I ask only that readers, Catholic or not, give my views some consideration. I'd be delighted simply to stimulate a discussion.

Disclaimer #2: I was once a 3rd-party candidate. In 2000 I was the Constitution Party candidate for a US Senate seat from Massachusetts. I ran in that election because I wanted to give pro-life, pro-family voters a real choice; I ran as a 3rd-party candidate (although I had been an active Republican in previous years) because the local GOP made it clear that I was unwelcome. In case you were wondering, I lost the race-- as every sensible person had known I would. The incumbent, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, outpolled me by the "narrow" margin of about 1.7 million votes.

In New York's 23rd Congressional district race, local GOP officials ignored their constituents and nominated a liberal, Dede Scozzafava, as their candidate. Dismayed by that choice, a more conservative Republican, Doug Hoffman, accepted the nomination of the Conservative Party, making it-- with the Democratic nominee, Bill Owens-- a 3-way race.

For the past 20 years, Republican Party leaders have warned pro-lifers and other conservatives that they must not succumb to the temptations of 3rd-party challenges. Conservative 3rd-party candidates only siphon off votes from the Republican nominee, the GOP hierarchy has said. Even a liberal Republican is better than a Democrat, the GOP hierarchy has said. With this line of reasoning, liberals within the Republican Party have bludgeoned conservatives, and "big tent" Republicans have bludgeoned pro-lifers. Their message has always been the same: "Accept our candidate, or you'll get something worse." If pro-lifers and conservatives dared to challenge that argument and mount a 3rd-party candidacy, they would be doomed to failure. So in one November contest after another, pro-life conservatives were forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.

In New York's 23rd district this week, the flaws in the liberal argument were exposed.

• It's not true that the Democratic candidate is necessarily worse than the Republican, from the pro-life conservative perspective. The Democrat, Bill Owens, was predictably liberal on issues ranging from abortion to taxation. But so was the Republican nominee, Dede Scozzafava. There was no particular reason for conservatives and pro-lifers to fear an Owens victory, if the alternative was a Scozzafava victory; the differences were minimal.

• It's not true that a 3rd-party conservative candidate can't possibly win. By last week-- with conservative support surging to Hoffman, and liberal Republican support drying up-- Scozzafava realized that she could not win, and pulled out of the race. In effect the Republican had become the 3rd-party candidate.

• It's not true that a 3rd-party conservative is guilty of dividing the Republican vote. In New York's 23rd, Dede Scozzafava gave the most emphatic possible demonstration of the point when she endorsed the Democratic challenger. In this most revealing of races, it was the putative Republican who divided the real Republican constituency.

• It's not true that a 3rd-party candidate can't win. Doug Hoffman lost, but only narrowly, after the White House threw its full last-minute support behind Owens. Think about it: the 3rd-party candidate barely lost to a Democratic candidate who was endorsed by the Republican candidate! In any normal race, Scozzfava's withdrawal would have been enough to ensure a Hoffman victory.

Next year, social conservatives and "tea party" Republicans-- who may or may not agree on every major issue-- should support their own candidates in political races. If the Republican panjandrums say that an upstart conservative will only guarantee a liberal victory, point to this week's contest in New York's 23rd district, and demand a more convincing response.

The 2-party system has served America well for many years. But nowhere in the US Constitution-- let alone in Sacred Scripture-- is it decreed that only two political parties may contest major elections. New coalitions are constantly forming in the political world, and new alignments constantly taking place. It's only natural that in times of intense political discord, new coalitions-- and perhaps even new parties-- will be formed.

There is precedent, you know. The Republican Party itself was formed in response to the great divisive moral issue of the day: slavery. The new party's first presidential candidate, John Frémont, ran a surprisingly competitive race. In the next presidential election the Republican nominee was a winner: Abraham Lincoln.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Miss Cathy - Nov. 08, 2009 9:44 PM ET USA

    In response to the moderate Republican candidate, I joined America's Independent Party. The chairman brought up a haunting point, if the Republican Party has in its platform that the unborn child is a person, and should be accorded all unalienable rights due a person, yet the candidates keep stating that abortion should be a state's rights issue, what other unalienable rights is the party willing to leave to the state's discretion? Free speech? The right to bear arms?

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Nov. 05, 2009 10:46 AM ET USA

    Phil, I voted for you in 2000. I met you at Holy Trinity Church in Boston while you were campaigning. Too bad you didn't win.

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Nov. 05, 2009 10:03 AM ET USA

    Moreover, Hoffman was not a dynamic campaigner. His efforts were noble, but another candidate might have actually won! The comment about "zealots" is hard to briefly address. We are told that anybody who thinks the issue of life is important is a "zealot"--as is anybody who take his faith seriously. Those who work tirelessly for abortion are "moderate." This reader apparently buys into this secular view (at least partially). There's so much wrong with it, yet I'm out of characters.

  • Posted by: michaelrafferty5029 - Nov. 04, 2009 8:22 PM ET USA

    Gee, Phil, I'm inclined to think that you wouldn't have liked Lincoln. He dismissed the idea that God was on anyone's side, thinking it best to "pray humbly that we are on God's side." Lincoln had no use for zealots.

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