If poll results are to be believed, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is climbing the ranks in the Republican presidential nominating contest.
There's one (or, in fact, many, but one that I care about) barrier that stands in his way: a former assemblywoman from Gouverneur.
My inbox is pinged several times a week by Google alerts from mostly conservative sites (and here and here and here and here and here and here and here) that mention (or criticize) Mr. Gingrich's endorsement in 2009 of Republican Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava in a special election for Congress that served as the first battle line between the tea party and the establishment for control over the Republican Party.
Ms. Scozzafava was running against Democrat Bill Owens and the Conservative Party's Doug Hoffman. When it became clear that Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Owens were well ahead of Ms. Scozzafava — who was deemed not conservative enough for the Conservative line — Ms. Scozzafava dropped out and endorsed Mr. Owens, the eventual victor. She now works in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration.
Writes Eric Odom of the Patriot Action Network, a tea party group: "The 'mistake' Newt made in this race is his open and defiant endorsement of leftist Dede Scozzafava. This hits me personally, because fellow bloggers Steve Foley, Ali Akbar and I were all in upstate New York covering the special election as it unfolded. We were there on the ground and we saw first hand the damage Gingrich heaped upon the process by digging his feet in behind Scozzafava."
Dick Armey, a former congressman who spent time in Northern New York to boost Mr. Hoffman, said in May of Mr. Gingrich, according to the National Review Online: "Newt entered the race with serious ground to make up with these 2 million tea party activists.”
Mr. Gingrich has said that it was the pragmatic choice to get a Republican majority; after Ms. Scozzafava dropped out, Mr. Gingrich endorsed Mr. Hoffman.
Which leads me to this all-important question: Is support for Dede Scozzafava apostasy to a certain number of conservative thought leaders, or does it actually trickle down to the conservative electorate?
Poll results indicate the former, though they could always change as Mr. Gingrich's campaign is subjected to renewed scrutiny — particularly on matters like Ms. Scozzafava and his appearance in a TV commercial with Nancy Pelosi.
According to that CNN poll, 59 percent of self-identified conservatives have a favorable opinion of Mr. Gingrich, despite his supposed high crime/misdemeanor of supporting a moderate to liberal Republican. Only 25 percent have an unfavorable opinion of him. That's a higher favorable rate than any other candidate. And when conservatives were asked which candidate they supported, 26 percent said they support Mr. Gingrich, putting him in first place among the party's right wing, according to the poll. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was second, with 21 percent. Even tea party supporters, those who should ostensibly be most angry at Mr. Gingrich for endorsing Ms. Scozzafava, seem nonplussed. He leads the pack with 29 percent, followed by businessman Herman Cain at 22 percent. (National Journal asks: Can he pass muster? So far, he can.)
I've obliquely made the point before that some of the liberal votes that Ms. Scozzafava took in the Assembly wasn't what doomed her among the NY-23 Republican electorate — though it mattered to one all important man, the Conservative Party's Mike Long.
The Scozzafava question will matter locally, too. Republican Matt Doheny, who will try a second time to oust Mr. Owens, donated to Ms. Scozzafava's campaign in 2009. That was part of the reason Mr. Long wouldn't give Mr. Doheny the Conservative line in 2010, though Mr. Long is open to it this year.
Perhaps the lesson that the GOP learned during a congressional race in 2009 will resonate in the 2012 presidential election and the 2012 contest for the north country's congressional seat. It's something that Mr. Gingrich knew back in 2009, and it would benefit, more than anybody, Mr. Romney and Mr. Doheny in 2012: You can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
As Mr. Gingrich said in defending his Scozzafava endorsement: My number one interest is to build a Republican majority. If your interest is taking power back from the Left, and your interest is winning the necessary elections, then there are times when you have to put together a coalition that has disagreement within it."