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Question marks for GOP in New York district and beyond

By Rebecca Sinderbrand, CNN
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New York election rebellion
  • Voters will go to polls Tuesday in special congressional election
  • Democrat Owens is running against Conservative Party's Hoffman
  • GOP's Scozzafava was driven from race by grass-roots activists
  • CNN TV: Instant results, analysis from the Best Political Team, 8 p.m. ET

Washington (CNN) -- If Democrats suffer a loss in an upstate New York congressional race Tuesday, it could well spark an uneasy celebration among Republican leaders.

The party establishment, still in rebuilding mode heading into next year's midterm elections, watched helplessly this weekend as Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava was driven from the race by grass-roots activists in favor of a more conservative candidate.

Finding out whether Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman wins or loses won't resolve the race's biggest mystery: What does the successful inner-party insurgency in the race mean for the GOP in the Tea Party era?

Of course, national Republicans had not originally selected Scozzafava: County GOP chairs picked the state assemblywoman to replace Rep. John McHugh in New York's 23rd congressional district.

And top party leaders quickly mobilized over the weekend to support Hoffman, with pledges from Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele that resources would immediately be deployed for get-out-the-vote efforts on his behalf.

But that move, born of political necessity, marked a sharp, and painfully public, about-face.

Just weeks ago, a spokesman for congressional Republicans had charged that Hoffman didn't even live in the district and that he "lacked the integrity and qualities needed to be elected to anything, let alone Congress."

Days ago, Steele had restated his firm backing of Scozzafava in the face of mounting pressure to end the party's support for her bid.

Late last week, as the pace of conservative and congressional Hoffman endorsements quickened, reports began to spread among anti-Scozzafava conservatives that national Republicans had quietly ended both anti-Hoffman and pro-Scozzafava efforts, focusing their resources instead solely on attacking Democratic candidate Bill Owens.

By the weekend, with House Republicans joining the conservative base in open revolt, it was clear that both Scozzafava and the GOP had run out of options.

Video: Key races in key states

Scozzafava's exit was followed a day later by her endorsement of Owens, as the RNC immediately funneled resources to Hoffman, and third-party groups backing both remaining candidates descended on the district.

Everyone agrees that the grass-roots insurrection against the Republican Party's official candidate means something significant, but exactly what it means depends on who's asked.

House Minority Leader John Boehner downplayed the New York developments Sunday but conceded that his party was affected by forces beyond its control -- and predicted a rocky road ahead.

"Well, we're in the middle of, I think, of a political rebellion going on in America," the Ohio congressman told John King on CNN's "State of the Union." "And this rebellion [is] by people who really have not been actively involved in the political process. And they don't really care whether you're a Democrat or a Republican. They want to see people who are going to stand up and protect the future for our kids and grandkids.

"And so it's going to be a difficult road to walk, to work with relatively new entrants into the political system and to work with them to show them that, by and large, we are the party who represents their interests."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had pointed to the Scozzafava backlash this week to caution against a "purge" of party moderates, formally switched his endorsement from her to Hoffman. But the architect of the "Republican Revolution" warned that the Conservative candidate's ability to drive the official Republican pick from the race could mean tough times to come for the GOP. Conservatives protest Biden appearance in New York

"This makes life more complicated from the standpoint of this: If we get into a cycle where every time one side loses, they run a third-party candidate, we'll make [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi speaker for life and guarantee [President] Obama's re-election," Gingrich told the New York Times hours after Scozzafava's exit. "I think we are going to get into a very difficult environment around the country if suddenly conservative leaders decide they are going to anoint people without regard to local primaries and local choices."

Election Day won't mark the end of these kinds of attacks on the party establishment. The same conservative activists who pushed for Scozzafava's ouster have trained their sights on some of next year's key congressional races.

One top target is Florida's Senate contest, where Gov. Charlie Crist -- who has the backing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and its chairman, Texas' John Cornyn -- is facing an underdog challenge from conservative favorite Marco Rubio.

RedState's Erick Erickson -- a Hoffman supporter who said after Scozzafava's exit that the "GOP establishment dies on our hill" -- bluntly drew the parallel: "We must now do to Crist what we did to Scozzafava," he wrote Saturday.

"We should be magnanimous in victory -- and whether Hoffman wins or loses, as long as Dede Scozzafava loses it is a victory," Erickson said. "But we should demand accountability, we should demand a reckoning, and we should demand a purge from the party establishment of those people most responsible for the Republican disaster in N.Y. 23."