Much as some would like to paint Tuesday's election results as a referendum on Barack Obama, odd-year elections typically turn on local issues and candidates, telling us little about the national elections that follow them by a year.

Much as some would like to paint Tuesday's election results as a referendum on Barack Obama, odd-year elections typically turn on local issues and candidates, telling us little about the national elections that follow them by a year.


The more interesting tea leaves from this election have to do with the state of the Republican Party, and they are being brewed in an unlikely place. The 23rd New York House district has been comfortably Republican for generations. The seat became vacant when Obama appointed Rep. John McHugh to be Secretary of the Army. Local GOP leaders chose state Rep. Dede Scozzafava, whose record in Albany is considered slightly to the right of center.


But Scozzafava favors gay rights and abortion rights, and endorsed the stimulus bill enacted by Congress earlier this year. That was enough to attract a challenger to her right, Douglas Hoffman, and catch the attention of Republicans far from upstate New York. While top Washington Republicans supported Scozzafava, Sarah Palin, former Sen. Fred Thompson and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty joined conservative activists in throwing their support to Hoffman.


The weekend before the election, Scozzafava dropped out and threw her support not to Hoffman, who doesn't live in the district, but to the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens.


It no longer matters who wins the special election in the 23rd New York. Now that the conservatives have blown a moderate Republican out of the race, Rush Limbaugh is proclaiming a "massacre of the RINOs," which is code for "Republicans In Name Only." A message has been sent to moderate Republicans everywhere, especially those who might be tempted to work with Obama on any project.


Republican leaders in Congress haven't exactly been cooperating with Obama, but the battle of the 23rd New York is also sending a message to them: Forget the big tent.


"Today the GOP is a party with leaders but no followers," Richard Viguerie, one of the giants of the conservative movement when Ronald Reagan carried its flag. "It's clear that the main opposition to President Obama and Speaker Pelosi's agenda is not Republican politicians but conservative talk-show hosts, bloggers, cable TV hosts, Tea Party activists, town hall attendees as well as national, state and local conservatives."


A party out of power is always at a leadership disadvantage. With control of neither house of Congress and with its previous presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, unpopular in his own party, Republicans are leaderless. Those who hope to fill that vacuum and shape the party's future are appealing to the most energetic part of the party base, the movement conservatives.


Movement activists value ideological purity over electability. The party they fashion will be more conservative - but smaller. They ran Sen. Arlen Specter out of the party. They are going after Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a popular Republican caught saying nice things about Obama, and Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe for the crime of trying to write a bipartisan health reform bill.


Meanwhile, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll finds just 17 percent of voters identify themselves as Republicans, compared with 30 percent Democrats and 44 percent independents. A recent Gallup poll found that Palin, whose stature in the GOP has grown with her tilt in the 23rd New York, now has a lower national approval rating than at any time since she made her debut at the 2008 Republican National Convention as John McCain's running mate.


After taking serious losses in the 2006 and 2008 elections, commentators of all stripes suggested the Republicans would have to spend time "in the wilderness" before regaining their footing. As Scozzafava and other GOP moderates are finding, the wilderness can be a dangerous place.


The MetroWest Daily News