Top Democrats predicted that the backlash against the Republican Party in a New York congressional election Tuesday marked the start of a wave that will continue in key 2010 Senate races, saying they think independent voters will abandon a divided Republican Party.
"What we are seeing here is a fractured GOP in Senate races all over the country," said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).
A growing number of small-government conservatives, particularly outside of Washington, have been energized by a grass-roots insurgency that is rejecting the more mainstream Republican candidates. Bob MacGuffie, a libertarian activist from Connecticut who helped organize town-hall protests over the summer, said they think their interests have been "sold out by both parties."
Democrats now think the upstarts could be a potential, albeit unintentional, ally in their bid to hold Congress in 2010. Moderate Republican candidates, Democrats think, are being pushed to the right in states that require them to stay centrist in order to win.
Democrats have their eye on Republican primary challenges in Florida, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, Missouri, New Hampshire, Arkansas and Kentucky.
"The tea partiers and the birthers and the far right of their party is moving these candidates in that direction, and that's a lot harder when you have to win in the general election," Mr. Menendez said.
In New York's 23rd Congressional District, businessman Doug Hoffman forced Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava to drop out of the race after criticizing her for support of same-sex marriage, abortion and excessive government spending.
Mr. MacGuffie called the New York special election "the first battle for the Republican Party's soul in the 2010 election cycle."
"We earnestly hope Republican Party national leadership very quickly gets this message so we can get on with nominating and electing people who will govern by the principles on which our great Republic was founded," Mr. MacGuffie said.
The Republican Party called the development a sign of their own party's momentum, saying they are seeing the grass roots call for a return to conservative principles.
"Independent voters continue to peel away from the Democrats and are gravitating toward the right," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the fundraising arm for House Republican candidates.
Still, several more established Republican candidates are being challenged by grass-roots candidates with hard-line conservative views.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's challenge for a U.S. Senate seat from former state House speaker Marco Rubio is only the most well-known of these bubbling insurgencies. Mr. Crist is supported by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and most of the Republican senators in Washington. But he is coming under heavy fire from Mr. Rubio, the telegenic 38-year-old son of Cuban immigrants, for his support earlier this year of President Obama's $787 billion stimulus.
Mr. Rubio has cut Mr. Crist's 30-point lead in half and closed the fundraising gap, and is attracting support from some of the right's biggest names, such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, as well as from the Club for Growth, a Washington group devoted to conservative fiscal orthodoxy.
In California, well-known businesswoman Carly Fiorina has said that Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who chairs the NRSC, urged her to run against Sen. Barbara Boxer, the Democratic incumbent, because, he said, state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore would not be able to win the general election. In response, conservative blogs led by RedState.com launched a fundraising drive on Mr. DeVore's behalf. Mr. DeVore, who is labeling Mrs. Fiorina a "big-government liberal," has pulled even with her in a recent poll of Republican primary voters.
Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson has received fundraising help from some of the most senior Republican senators, but his primary rival for the state's Senate seat, anti-tax activist Rand Paul, outraised him in the third quarter of 2009.
Mr. Paul, son of Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican and anti-tax firebrand, raised more than $1 million in the third quarter to Mr. Grayson's $643,000.
Even if establishment Republican candidates end up beating their primary challengers, they will exhaust much of their energy and money in the process. The DSCC already has twice as much cash on hand as the NRSC, with $10.3. million to the NRSC's $5.2. million, and 12 of 17 Democratic Senate candidates or incumbents currently enjoy substantial fundraising advantages over their closest Republican opponent.
Karl Rove, who helped elect President George W. Bush and served as his political mastermind in the White House, said that Democrats are trying to string together unique sets of circumstances in New York into an overly simplistic narrative.
Mr. Rove, who has contributed financially to Mr. Rubio's campaign, acknowledged that the "unique election laws" in New York, which allowed county Republican Party chairmen to select Mrs. Scozzafava behind closed doors, roiled the right.
But, he said, "conservative challenges to establishment Republicans, like Marco Rubio's challenge to Charlie Crist in Florida, will be resolved in primaries, which tend to leave parties more united than back-room selections like New York law mandated in the 23rd Congressional District special election."
Democrats contend reality is far more black and white.
"The race in New York shows [Republicans] can't be united," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.