Updated: Who's King of New York?

Of the 37 governorships up for grabs in 2010, Republicans stand perhaps their best chance of taking a seat from the Democrats in New York.  Gov. David Paterson, who was thrust into office after former governor Elliot Spitzer admitted to frequenting prostitutes while on state business trips, is unpopular and perceived to be weak.

Paterson’s handling of both the U.S. Senate vacancy created when Hillary Clinton was confirmed as Secretary of State and a month-long leadership struggle in the state senate did nothing to increase his standing or popularity. Paterson faces a potential primary from Spitzer’s former opponent in the 2006 gubernatorial election, current state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.  

But Republicans do not yet have a declared candidate to challenge Paterson for the governor’s mansion. Rudy Giuliani is expected to run. However, some Republicans are concerned that Giuliani has not made an official announcement or started fund raising.

Published reports indicate that some state party officials are growing tired of Giuliani’s failure to make a firm decision about a governor’s race. Rockland County GOP chair Vincent Reda was quoted in the New York Daily News expressing his frustration with Giuliani’s drawn out decision process.

“I’m very unhappy with that decision; we need time to raise the bucks,” Reda said, referring to Giuliani’s recent declaration that he would make an announcement sometime after the November elections. “Cuomo’s sitting on $10 million.  Paterson’s got $5 million. We’ve got squat.”

“[When] are we going to get started with our governor’s race?  His stretching and waiting is killing us. It’s killing the party.”

That concern may be behind a leadership struggle within the NY GOP.  The current state party chairman, Joseph Mondello of Nassau County on Long Island, is widely expected to step down at the end of his current two-year term, leaving a leadership vacuum just as Republicans are hoping they can take advantage of disunity among Democrats.

Giuliani has thrown his support behind Henry Wojtaszek, vice-chairman of the state Republican Party.  Giuliani is reported to be making phone calls on Wojtaszek’s behalf to other county chairs, hoping to sway them and in some cases convince them to switch their support to Wojtaszek from his rival, former U.S. Senate candidate Ed Cox.

Wojtaszek, 47, is also chairman of the Niagara County GOP.  He was first elected in 2000 but resigned in 2002 to run against incumbent Rep. Louise Slaughter for the newly created 28th district House seat, losing 62-38 percent.  After the election, Wojtaszek was re-elected to his old position.  He was elected vice-chairman of the state party in 2006.

Cox, 62, is the son-in-law of former president Richard Nixon and a high-powered New York attorney.  Cox was briefly a candidate for Senate against Hillary Clinton in 2006.  He withdrew from the race in early October 2005 after failing to win the endorsement of then New York Governor George Pataki.  Cox has never held elective office, but has served in a number of capacities in federal and state government.

The competition between Cox and Wojtaszek is shaping up as an intra-establishment contest, with many former elected officials backing Wojtaszek, and 43 of the state’s 65 county chairs backing Cox.  In addition to Giuliani, Wojtaszek has reportedly secured the support of former U.S. Senator Al D’Amato, former congressmen Tom Reynolds and Rick Lazio, former state senate majority leader Joseph Bruno, former Attorney General Dennis Vacco, and former governor George Pataki.

Sources close to Giuliani have been quoted saying that the former mayor has nothing against Cox personally. Wojtaszek was an early New York supporter of Giuliani’s failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination, and the mayor is said to be returning the favor in the chairmanship race.

But presidential politics is casting a shadow over the race.  Cox served as the New York state chairman of Sen. John McCain’s primary campaign, and speculation is swirling that Giuliani wants a loyal head of the state party as a condition for making a run for governor.

The turmoil could not come at a worse time for Republicans, as Gov. Paterson’s popularity continues to fall, and voters are openly expressing their desire for a wholesale change in leadership in Albany.  A recent Siena College poll found that 54% of New Yorkers wished they could, “throw them all out and elect new leaders.”  A staggering three in four New Yorkers disapprove of Paterson’s job performance as governor, and 55 percent have a negative view of him personally.  Both Giuliani and Lazio beat Paterson in head-to-head contests.  

The same poll found that Cuomo has a 70 percent favorability rating, and leads the governor by 42 points in a prospective Democratic primary.  Cuomo also bests Giuliani in a head to head match up by 13 points.

With the governor’s election over a year off, and with voters in a throw-the-bums-out mood, there is a sense among some Republicans that a real opportunity may be slipping by with each passing day that the leadership battle drags out.  The chairmanship vote is expected to take place sometime in late September or early October.  The result could impact on Republicans’ chances of taking the governor’s race next year.

Update:  The king has been crowned.  The Daily News reports that Wojtaszek dropped out of the New York GOP chairmanship race late on Thursday.  Wojtaszek released a statement, saying that the party needed to keep its focus on the goal of winning he governor’s race. 

“Out of respect for his years of service to our party, I waited for Chairman Mondello to reveal his plans for the coming election before formally announcing my candidacy.”
“It’s clear now that the way that timeline worked out was detrimental to my efforts.”

“For me, this process has always been first and foremost about what is at stake next November, when six statewide offices are on the ballot. Given the state of the current political landscape, our inability to capitalize at the ballot box would undoubtedly be devastating.”

“Our work to reclaim the mantle of reform and lead New York into the next decade must begin now. We now need to focus on November, 2010.”

Cox will likely be elected when the party meets to choose a new chairman later this month.