How Sarah Palin and Tea Partiers Are Blowing Up the GOP

Wingnuts of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but election ... after election ... after election.

That's the lesson from the far right's stinging defeat in yet another Republican congressional district this week. Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman harangued GOP Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava into dropping out -- hailed as a huge victory for Real Republicans -- and then the clueless teabagger-cum-carpetbagger went on to lose the upstate New York seat to a little-known Democrat.

Brilliant strategy.

But it's one we've seen from Republicans over and over again, thanks to the shadowy anti-tax group Club for Growth. Its first scalp was in Michigan -- moderate former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Battle Creek), who was ousted by preacher Tim Walberg in the 2006 primary.

For the extreme right, victory was sweet. And short-lived.

Walberg managed to do two years later what Republicans thought impossible when they carved out the 57-percent GOP district -- relinquish it to a Democrat. And not some Blue Dog, Dem-come-lately, but Mark Schauer, the pro-choice minority leader of the state Senate with a penchant for voting for tax hikes.

But that was just the beginning. Obsessed with hunting RINOs (Republicans in Name Only), CFG has bagged an impressive list, including U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) and now Scozzafava.

There's just one problem. All of these seats are now held by Democrats, who thank their lucky stars that there are 40,000 gullible conservative ideologues willing to bankroll a group that's done almost as much to help their cause as silver-tongued President Obama.

So what is Club for Growth, really? Think of it as the spiritual godfather of the Tea Party movement -- they were baggin' before baggin' was cool (and sponsored by Fox News).

Officials claim ad nauseum, as President Chris Chocola did recently to The Atlantic, that there's no litmus test on social issues, but that seems laughable. It's worth noting that both he and former CFG Chief Pat Toomey (whose greatest accomplishment is turning Sen. Arlen Specter into a Democrat) were religious right darlings in Congress.

Like Hoffman and Walberg, Club-endorsed candidates almost unfailingly are anti-abortion hard-liners who will rant about the evils of gay marriage all day long if you ask. Besides CFG, their biggest backers are Right to Life, the Minuteman groups and gun-rights organizations who (coincidentally, of course) all launch strikingly similar attacks.

Hoffman went into Tuesday the odds-on favorite. Pundits were already crowning him the Tea Party King and a sign of impending doom for the Dems next year. Club for Growth officials puffed up their chests let it be known that they were a-comin' for GOP Gov. Charlie Crist down in Florida.

But a funny thing happened. Hoffman lost, thanks in no small part to Scozzafava's endorsement of Democrat Bill Owens (just as Schauer can thank Schwarz for his seat).

But you'd never know it from the alternate-reality universe of the extreme right. Erick Erickson of immediately declared Owens' win a "huge victory for conservatives."

Yes, there's nothing like the convoluted wisdom of someone who fails to realize Orwell was being ironic in "1984" with the slogan, "Ignorance is strength."

But no one can top the scatological acrobatics of Rush Limbaugh, who accused Scozzafava of "widespread bestiality," adding that she's "screwed every RINO in the country." Now that's quality programming for the family values set.

Of course, it was the rabid, pitchfork-waving horde of Rush, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Dick Armey and the once-respectable Tim Pawlenty that screwed the party here. Blather all you want that Scozzafava and Owens are one and the same, but those of us in the real world know that the average member of Congress will vote with his or her party at least 80 percent of time.

Ronald Reagan knew that. But then again, he was interested in winning and governing, not leading a conservative circle jerk.

Club for Growth is uncowed, ready for jihad against Crist, Carly Fiorina in the California Senate race and a host of other Republicans whom leaders deem insufficiently batty. Being fundamentally nihilistic, CFG disciples don't care if they lose 10 races, so long as they eventually win one.

Their intimidation campaign is working. Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele quickly warned the anemic GOP minority in Congress to "walk a little bit carefully" on votes. Translation: Vote for ideology, not your districts' interests or feel the purge, baby.

Although centrist Illinois U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk knows he'll never get the Club's blessing for Obama's old Senate seat, he's scrambling to lock down an early Palin endorsement to inoculate himself against right-wing venom. It's a curious twist, since when the Chicago Tribune asked him in '08 if the sassy former Wasilla mayor (population 6,700) was qualified to be a heartbeat from the presidency, Kirk sagely replied, "Quite frankly, I don't know."

This is a game moderates are bound to lose. The deck is stacked against them in primaries dominated by pro-lifers and Tea Partiers. They exercise outsize influence, not just because their obnoxiousness makes for good tee-vee, but because centrists inexplicably don't vote in primaries.

But reality sets in come the general election, when extremists are a minority -- and typically a small one at that. Suddenly, reasonable Republicans and independents come out of the woodwork. And to the spoils go the Democrats, who look comparatively sane.

There is a way for moderates to fight back, but it's a nuclear option. Why not let CFG puppets take GOP primaries and then run well-known moderates as independents in the general? They might not win, but they'd at least guarantee the Kool-Aid drinkers would go down.

Bet that would grab the party poobahs' attention. Kind of hard to ignore folks with their finger on the button.