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Tuesday Victories Help Stitch GOP Divide

For the Republican Party, this week's election is a silver lining attached to a troublesome cloud.

On the same day that Republicans won governorships in Virginia and New Jersey, two states President Obama won last year, they lost a New York congressional seat the GOP had occupied for 140 years. The same conservatives who energized the party this year forced out a Republican nominee they considered too moderate; their candidate lost to Democrat Bill Owens.

There was no sign the family feud was ending Wednesday, as Republicans offered sharply different spins on Owens' victory. Dick Armey, a Texan who was once House GOP leader, saw the New York race not as a Republican loss but a conservative victory. "We are people who put policy ahead of politics," he said.

One of Armey's former colleagues took a dimmer view. "This is another vote for the speaker," said Rep. Thad McCotter of Michigan, a member of the GOP leadership team. The reference was to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, top House Democrat.

Now conservatives are turning their attention to 2010. Their No. 1 target: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who has the backing of national Republican leaders in his state's Senate race next year, but who first must beat a primary challenge from Marco Rubio, a charismatic former speaker of the Florida House.

"Conservatives are going to make this a real fight," said conservative blogger Erick Erickson of RedState.com. "They feel like they got a scalp in New York, so now I think they will head to Florida."

Democrats on Wednesday welcomed the bloodletting. GOP conservatives are "applying an ideological purity test," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who heads his party's congressional campaign committee. "They're trying to purge the party of anyone who does not subscribe to a narrow conservative agenda."

Republican Party leaders, meanwhile, were grappling with a diplomatic challenge: how to enforce party unity without alienating their newest party activists. "You have to respect their independence," McCotter said. The No. 2 House Republican leader, Virginia's Eric Cantor, leveled no criticisms but shared his Election Day takeaway: "If our party remains united we can win, and if we're not united we can lose," Cantor said.

Tuesday's election results offer some support to both sides of the Republican divide.

Bob McDonnell, the Virginia governor-elect, and Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor-elect, are social conservatives whose Democratic opponents attacked them for their views on abortion and gay marriage. Both ran as pragmatists, not disavowing their views, but emphasizing economic issues such as taxes and transportation.

To Terry Jeffrey, a columnist for the conservative journal Human Events, their success proves that "it's a mistake for Republicans to move left on cultural issues." Conservative social concerns can take a back seat to other issues, he said, as long as the candidates "support Republican values on right to life and the definition of marriage."

To Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman who heads the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, the election proved the need to pick candidates that fit constituencies, not ideologies. Like the conservative activists, Davis is getting ready for 2010.

"We're going to support moderate candidates," he said.

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