EDITORIAL: Obama’s best hope: Divide and conquer

Republicans need to embrace party unity in 2012, or else

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The New York 26th Congressional District race is an important cautionary tale for Republicans. Party divisions helped throw a normally safe seat to the Democrats, and you can be sure the White House is taking notes.

Democrat Kathy Hochul won a plurality victory for the usually safe Republican seat with 47 percent of the vote. Republican Jane Corwin, the presumptive favorite, garnered 43 percent, and Obama-supporter-turned-Tea-Party-candidate Jack Davis played the spoiler, taking 9 percent. Had unity prevailed, the GOP could have eked out a win. Conservatives who abandoned Mrs. Corwin for Mr. Davis should remember the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson: “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

The race was reminiscent of the disastrous split in New York’s 23rd Congressional District in November 2009, though in that case it was the “party regular” who upset the cart. State Assemblywoman Dierdre Scozzafava, who was selected to run for the seat, was roundly rejected by most Republicans in favor of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. Ms. Scozzafava’s poll numbers were so dismal she ultimately withdrew from the race but spitefully threw her support to Democrat Bill Owens, who won with just 48 percent of the vote.

The division dynamic can hurt Democrats as well. In May 2010, Republican Charles Djou took Hawaii’s historically Democratic 1st Congressional District with a mere 39.4 percent of the vote, having faced two Democratic candidates deeply divided on ideological and personal grounds. However, the tendency to split is currently stronger on the right because the Republican big tent is larger and more diverse, moderate Democrats being nearly extinct.

The 2010 Republican midterm congressional tsunami didn’t suffer from the same degree of division because of the number of races involved. It had something for everyone - mainline Republicans, Tea Partyers and nonpartisan moderates who simply had seen enough from the disastrous Pelosi Congress. There were sufficiently varied candidates to energize all segments of the party, and enough wins to take over the House, something unimaginable in early 2009.

NY-26 should be a wake-up call to Republicans going into the 2012 election season at both the congressional and presidential level. At this point, it’s unclear which Republican candidates for president will be able to unite the party’s various tribes, but it’s certain that the easiest way for President Obama to win re-election is to divide the opposition. Disunity played a key role in determining the electoral fortunes of the three men who preceded him in the White House. In 1992, Bill Clinton unseated President George H.W. Bush with just 43 percent of the vote, aided by Ross Perot’s protest candidacy. Had Vice President Al Gore received only a fraction of the more than 97,000 votes Green Party candidate Ralph Nader garnered in Florida in 2000, he would have won a recount-proof victory in the state, and thus the presidency.

The Republican field is large and expanding and will remain so until the winnowing process begins early next year. Then party members will begin to make that series of primary-season compromises in which today’s bitter opponent becomes tomorrow’s candidate of choice. Democrats will go out of their way to highlight cleavages on the right, hoping to encourage some form of formal split that will hand Mr. Obama a second term. In the end, it will come down to whether - to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin - the GOP’s factions would rather hang together or hang separately.

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