The biggest overlooked aspect of the NY-23rd special congressional election is Democratic candidate Bill Owens. NY-23 is a Republican-leaning district but not overwhelmingly so. George W. Bush just barely beat Al Gore in 2000 (49%-47%), and in 2008 Obama easily carried the district (52%-47%). It is a reddish district but not deep red.

Bill Owens is a conservative Democrat. He is arguably more conservative than the official Republican candidate was (Dede Scozzafava dropped out over the weekend). For example, his opposition to the public option puts him not only far to the right of the bulk of the Democratic party, but significantly to the right of the majority of Americans. He was selected because he fit the Rahm Emanuel philosophy that the only way for Democrats to win right-leaning districts is with conservative Democratic candidates.

The theory is that a center-right Democrat will win the entire Democratic base, most of the independents, and a few of the more liberal Republicans. That theory is getting blown out of the water in NY-23rd. Bill Owens’s remaining competition is the ultra-rightwing Conservative party candidate Doug Hoffman. The vast majority of the district should be ideologically much closer Owens than Hoffman, yet Hoffman is leading in the polls.

If Hoffman wins it will be a big loss for the misguided ideal among some Democrats that the only way to win right-leaning districts is by diligently staking out bland center-right positions. Having a candidate that seems “real” and can really fire up the base is very important. People often vote because they feel elected officials are ignoring them and they want to send a message. Right now, there is a real populist rage out there directed at Washington in general.

Most people don’t vote based on a checklist of positions, but vote for candidates they think are honest, even if they don’t agree with them. If a blue dog like Bill Owens can’t even beat an ultra-radical like Hoffman in a mildly red district, the idea of trying to run more blue dogs needs to be seriously re-examined. In 2006 and 2008, all Democrats rode a wave of anti-Republican sentiment. If they want to remain in power, they need to show the regular people that they are working to make their lives better.