What follows may be akin to one of those crazy ideas Dick Morris used to come up with in the Clinton White House, only one in ten of which turned out to be workable -- but when they worked, oh man, did they work.
The key fact that sticks out in my mind about Doug Hoffman's incredible momentum in NY-23 is that his election would not have been possible had he been the Republican nominee. The fact that we may be about to elect a non-squish from New York has everything to do with the fact that he is running as a third-party independent, and not a Republican (even if the Conservative Party is an auxiliary of the Republicans in most elections).
Hoffman as a Republican would have been too obvious a target and the subject of a relentless barrage of negative TV, websites, mail, and phones branding him as outside the mainstream, anti-choice, anti-worker, etc. But politically, Hoffman has managed to avoid all that until five days out, when it's now clear he's the frontrunner. And as Chris Cillizza points out this morning, Hoffman's success in the polls is built on the back among strong support among independents and (primarily) not Republican regulars disgusted at Scozzafava.
This got me thinking: How many points is an Independent party label worth, assuming you're able to vie for Republican votes in a general election? 5? 10? We know that in races with a plausible third party, that candidate automatically tends to earn more independent and moderate support even if they are ideologically indistinguishable from a Republican (Hoffman) or a Democrat (Chris Daggett in New Jersey).
We also know from Daggett's run in a strong-party, machine state that American politics is entering a phase of third party strength which we last saw in the early '90s with Ross Perot and culminating in the Republican Revolution of '94.
This led me to tweet the following this morning:
Brainstorm: what if Republicans were to withdraw from a series of hot Congressional races and run as conservative independents a la #ny23?
I am not one to believe that a situation exactly like Hoffman's is recreatable across the spectrum. Certainly, we would not want to have to take out every slightly wobbly Republican nominee (Scozzafava's problem was that she was very wobbly) with a third party conservative. With 435 House races on the ballot in 2010, the conservative movement won't have the energy to concentrate its Death Star gamma ray on hapless local establishments in every district.
But what if it were to happen peacefully? Or as a concerted strategy to gain votes?
What if you were to have promising Republican candidates running in Democratic-lean seats say, a few months out from the election, "Let me tell you something. I'm just as sick and tired of the Republicans as I am of the Democrats. So, from this moment forward, I'm running as a common-sense, Independent conservative for Congress."
From one perspective, this would not be helpful to efforts to tie the Republican brand to a broader sense of popular disgust at the Obama/Pelosi overreach. On the other hand, it might be a way for conservatives to invade the center, and thus control the high ground politically.
If you're a party person, don't dismiss this just yet. Say you're the NRCC and you haven't found a good recruit against a vulnerable House Democrat. Say the Republican nominee is a joke, or the incumbent is unopposed. Three months out, you go to your star recruit who turned you down a year ago and ask him to run as an independent. It's a three month campaign as opposed to an 18-month campaign. They don't have to quit their law practice or small business. They enter in the last few miles of the race, and you put serious pressure on the joke nominee to step aside, or put out word through local media and talk radio that this is the guy.
Now, I know one could raise myriad issues here. Ballot access for one. The reflexive aversion to third parties. The relative infrequency of unchallenged vulnerable Democrats, especially because 2010 won't be 2008 or 2006. And the prospect of bloody intra-party battles after the nomination has been settled.
All of these risks are arrayed against a few salient facts. First, the rising disgust at incumbent politicians that will play out over the next couple of years, accompanied by a "pox on both your houses" sentiment. Second, a proven history of entire party blocs picking up and moving to third parties when they need to (NY-23, or Joe Lieberman's 2006 re-election). There are two possibilities for an ideological third party candidate -- they can either flop and pose no serious threat (which happens the vast majority of the time because the candidates are nobodies) or dominate (if they are credible).
In a handful of races, perhaps in places where we can't win with the Republican label alone, it might be more useful for the general election to be a strong Independent versus a Democrat rather than a Republican versus a Democrat. At one extreme of the Cook PVI, let's stipulate that the general election against Charlie Rangel was waged with a Puerto Rican small business owner running on the No More Corrupt Politicians Party line with behind the scenes, logistical support from the GOP. At a minimum, that person would stand a better chance than a Republican in that district.
I'm a strong party guy, but I also believe in Sun Tzu's maxim that you do the unexpected to throw your opponent off balance. Strategically unleashing a swarm of conservative independents may be one such strategy for 2010.