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Florida, Texas, California? Conservative Activists Mull Their Next Stand

5 years ago
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Conservative activists aren't wasting any time in mourning, as one put it, in the wake of their anointed candidate's narrow loss in New York's 23rd Congressional District.

Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele is among the realists who look at Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman's defeat and see . . . a defeat. But the groups, bloggers and radio talkers who poured time, money and passion into the dramatic roller coaster race are taking heart. Hoffman's meteoric rise from 17 percent to near-victory proves that "the principles of limited government and economic freedom are ascendant" heading into 2010, Club For Growth President Chris Chocola told supporters Wednesday.

Besides the anti-tax Club For Growth, which invested $1 million in the race, groups that mobilized behind Hoffman included the Eagle Forum, FreedomWorks and the Family Research Council. Here are six contests ripe for a test of their contention that conservatives make better GOP candidates.

Florida Senate
. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate who is popular in the state, has the blessing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee for a seat that will be open. But conservative Marco Rubio is getting serious attention from the same grassroots groups that sent Hoffman from obscurity to near-hero. "The media's attention and the movement's attention are turning to Florida," said Club spokesman Mike Connolly. "We're taking a hard look." Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina conservative who raises money for "rock-solid" conservatives, has already endorsed Rubio, the speaker of the Florida House. Thursday update: Things are moving fast in Florida. The Family Research Council PAC announced it is backing Rubio and the Club For Growth started running an ad criticizing Crist.

Texas Governor. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, has endorsed Gov. Rick Perry. He's being challenged by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is considered a moderate. And maybe she is, compared to Perry, who has expressed sympathy from time to time with Texans who want to secede from the union. On the other hand, one of Hutchison's endorsers is former Vice President Dick Cheney.

California Senate. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina announced her candidacy Wednesday. That pits her against conservative state assemblyman Chuck DeVore, an Orange County resident who served in the Reagan Defense Department and is another DeMint pick. Fiorina is a moderate who, unlike every Republican in Congress except three senators, supported President Obama's stimulus plan. She advised GOP nominee John McCain last year and put him in a tough spot by raising the issue of why some insurance plans cover Viagra but not birth control (he had twice voted against bills to require such coverage). McCain and other leading GOP senators will be raising money for Fiorina this month at an event in Washington; some have said she'd be a stronger challenger to liberal veteran Sen. Barbara Boxer.

California Governor. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, also a former McCain adviser, is competing against former Congressman Tom Campbell and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner (like Whitman, a rich tech industry alum). Whitman is a moderate who supports abortion rights and gun control, and endorsed and contributed to Boxer in 2003. Last month she was endorsed by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a fellow moderate. Campbell is, if anything, even more to the left, in favor of both abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Poizner is not as adamantly anti-abortion as conservatives would like, but he appears to be the most conservative of the three.

Kansas 1st Congressional District. The Club For Growth already has endorsed state Sen. Tim Huelskampf in a competitive primary for an open seat. Club president Chocola said he "stands out as a champion of limited government and economic freedom" and will fight for "free-market policies" in Congress. Among the five other candidates, state Sen. Jim Barnett, a doctor, is in the top tier with Huelskampf. Conservatives consider him a liberal and note disapprovingly that last year he worked with then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius -- a Democrat -- on health care.

Georgia 9th Congressional District. There are several candidates for this open seat, including former legislators Bill Stephens and Mike Evans. The Club For Growth has endorsed state Rep. Tom Graves. He is part of the "Tea Party" movement and endorsed Hoffman last month.

So far, national conservative groups are not involved in the Connecticut or Illinois Senate primaries, and the GOP establishment picks in those races are hoping it stays that way. Former Connecticut Congressman Rob Simmons last month announced, in a blog post headlined "Listening and Learning," that he had changed his mind on two issues that inflame conservatives. He said he now opposes the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to form unions, and a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon emissions.

Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk, a suburban moderate, was one of only eight House Republicans who voted with the majority last summer to pass a sweeping energy and climate bill that included a cap-and-trade system. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Kirk is seeking an endorsement from Sarah Palin and he wants it as early as this month. Such an endorsement would amount to protective armor. (My colleague Lynn Sweet has more here at her Chicago Sun-Times blog).

Palin's grip on her fellow conservatives was evident after she endorsed Hoffman on her Facebook page. As GOP strategist Scott Reed put it, "Palin put this race on the map." A deluge of VIP endorsements ensued, Hoffman's fortunes rose, and moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava's campaign collapsed.

Steele, the national party chairman, who supported Scozzafava in the special election until she dropped out last weekend, signaled disapproval Wednesday of both the selection process (Scozzafava was chosen by local party chairs) and of the outside intervention by national conservatives. "If you don't live in the district, you don't vote there, your opinion really doesn't matter much," he said.

That's not going to discourage these groups, but they are going to be choosing their spots carefully. New York 23 was one contest in a remote area with cheap media. It's a lot more expensive to pick a statewide fight in Florida or California, or both.

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