Giuliani's Lazio Endorsement a Boon or Bust?

On Monday, former New York City Mayor and Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani made official what many New York Republicans had become increasingly resigned to over the past couple of months: he will not be seeking political office in 2010.  The announcement denies Republicans of perhaps their strongest candidate in either of the governor’s or U.S. Senate races, both of which feature relatively weak incumbent Democrats.

Giuliani had long been considered a potential candidate for governor against troubled Gov. David Paterson but reportedly decided against a challenge last month after New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo informed him that he would run against Paterson in the Democratic primary. Cuomo would likely beat Paterson, and Giuliani was said to not relish taking on the popular Attorney General, with whom he is personally friendly.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is considered vulnerable as she seeks election to her seat for the first time.  Gillibrand was appointed by Paterson earlier this year to fill the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  The appointment of the little-known moderate upset many New York liberals, hurting both Paterson’s and Gillbrand’s electoral hopes.  Giuliani was thought to be favoring a run for the Senate until his announcement.

In announcing his decision, Giuliani endorsed former U.S. Representative Rick Lazio for governor. This was not the first time that Giuliani has tapped Lazio as a kind of substitute candidate. In 2000, Giuliani had declared his intention to run for Senate against then First Lady Hillary Clinton. Lazio dropped out of the Republican primary in deference to the mayor, only to get back in after Giuliani quit the race after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Clinton defeated Lazio handily.

Lazio, who had been reported to be planning a run for governor since last January, officially announced his campaign in September.  He has been quietly making the rounds of the state, picking up endorsements from county GOP Chairmen.  Giuliani is by far his highest profile backer thus far.

However, there are indications that Giuliani’s endorsement may not carry the weight it once did.  

Over the summer, Giuliani endorsed Niagara County GOP Chairman Henry Wojtaszek to replace outgoing state party chair Tom Mondello.  Giuliani reportedly made several behind the scenes phone calls to county chairs in support of Wojtaszek and in an effort to rally party bosses to his chosen candidate.

Those efforts were a failure, as Giuliani did not come close to securing a majority of county chairs for Wojtaszek.  The campaign of New York Republicans elected the high-powered attorney and former U.S Senate candidate Ed Cox as state party chairman.  Cox served as the head of the McCain presidential campaign in New York, a fact which was rumored to have irked Giuliani, and which may have played a role in his decision to sit out the 2010 elections.  Lazio had also endorsed Wojtaszek.

Giuliani’s inability to carry Wojtaszek was noted by Erie County Executive Chris Collins.  Collins has been considering a run for governor, and like Lazio, has been making the rounds of the county chairs seeking support.  Christopher Grant, Collins’ chief of staff, told the Buffalo News on Tuesday that Giuliani’s endorsement of Lazio would not scare Collins out of the governor’s race.

“When Mayor Giuliani made his endorsement for someone other than Ed Cox, Ed Cox emerged victorious," Grant said.  

State party chairman Cox similarly did not seem to think that Giuliani’s endorsement would clear the field for Lazio.  On the contrary, he seemed to be soliciting other candidates to step up and challenge Lazio in the wake of Giuliani’s announcement.

“This does open the door to other candidates to come forward,” Cox was quoted as saying. “We have one announced candidate for governor, and I think there will be more coming out.”

Lazio hopes Giuliani’s endorsement lives up to the billing he gave it on Tuesday, when he called Giuliani, “the most significant political figure in New York.”  Lazio did pick up two more county GOP chairmen in the wake of Giuliani’s endorsement.  In all, Lazio counts seven county chairs backing him.  

The state Republican convention is not until early this summer, and a potential primary will not be held until early September.  That leaves plenty of time for Lazio to leverage Giuliani’s endorsement and consolidate his growing support at the county level.  It also leaves plenty of time for the impact of the endorsement to wane, and for potential challengers to Lazio to emerge.