Last fall there was a lot of discussion about former Rep. John McHugh's politics and what they meant for the NY-23 special election. And with good reason. McHugh was reelected again and again, often with more that 60% of the vote. Why wouldn't you examine the record of a hugely successful past representative during the race to find his replacement?
Most of the comparisons went something like this: John McHugh was a moderate Republican. Dede Scozzafava is a moderate republican. Thus, Scozzafava is the McHugh's natural successor, and will be a viable candidate.
Of course, with hindsight, this argument seems invalid. After all, Dede's campaign self-destructed, and a significant share of the Republican voters cast their vote for a hard right conservative candidate. So maybe McHugh had grown increasingly out of touch with his district, and had continued to win only through the power of his incumbency.
Or maybe not.
Here's the thing about the word "moderate" in American politics. It can mean many different things.
The case for Moderate McHugh comes mostly from the fact that he only voted with his party 76% of the time and the rating of 60 he received from the American Conservative Union.
However, that only tells us that McHugh did not subscribe to all aspects of conservative orthodoxy. It says nothing about what specific positions caused him to split from his party and traditional conservative ideology.
A closer look at McHugh's ratings from various interest groups gives us a much more specific picture of his views. For example, McHugh got a 100% rating from the National Right to Life Committee. He also voted in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban same sex marriage. So, unlike Dede, McHugh was no moderate on social issues. He was a fairly mainstream social conservative.
However, McHugh also got a 100% rating from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, an 85% rating from the National Association of Home Builders and a high (for a Republican) 69% rating from the AFL-CIO. Also, he was one of the Republican representatives who voted in favor of the various bailouts, and he favored card check.
With this in mind, we can see that McHugh was a very particular kind of moderate. He wasn't simply in the center on most issues. He was an unwavering social conservative who was also an economic centrist (or pragmatist) and a friend to labor unions.
Compare this to Dede Scozzafava. Like McHugh, Scozzafava was friendly to labor and largely in the center-right on economic issues, but she was also pro-choice and pro-marriage equality. It could very well be that it was her stances on the latter issues, and not the fact that she was a moderate in general, that undermined the viability of her campaign.
Or maybe not, but I think there is still valuable insight to be gained from McHugh's record.
And what does this mean for the current NY-23 hopefuls? I'll have another post up on that topic soon.