Republicans Wasting Opportunities in New York?

Republicans are enjoying the best political atmosphere for the party in over a decade. Republican candidates across the country are poised to capitalize on voter angst and disappointment with the Democratic-controlled Congress, with many running competitively against Democratic incumbents ahead of this November’s congressional elections.

Forecasters have been steadily inching their predictions closer and closer to a Republican takeover of the House, with the most daring predicting a 50-70-seat turnover. It’s good to be a Republican candidate for office this year.

Except in New York.

While its sister parties in most of the country are expecting big things this fall, the New York GOP is struggling with recruitment problems and internal strife that threaten to scuttle the party’s chances before the races begin in earnest. New York has two U.S. Senate contests and a governor’s race to contest this year, and Republicans once hoped that they could capture two out of three.

Democrats are fielding incumbent Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and expect to feature Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in the governor’s race. Gillibrand is far and away the weakest candidate of the three, being appointed to fill the remainder of current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s term just last year. Gillibrand had just begun her second term in the House when Gov. David Paterson tapped her for the Senate after an arduous selection process that featured a very public campaign for the job from former President John F. Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy Townsend.

Paterson’s selection of Gillibrand was not popular among New York’s liberals, who blanched at her Blue Dog Democrat positions in favor of gun rights and against comprehensive immigration reform. Since joining the Senate, she has modified her stance on these and other issues to more closely align herself with liberals. 


Yet despite Gillibrand’s vulnerabilities, Republicans have been unable to convince a high-profile candidate to challenge her. Despite consistently leading in hypothetical match-ups, former Gov. George Pataki recently decided to forgo a run, as did former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and current Long Island Rep. Peter King before him. Three Republicans have declared their intention to seek the nomination to oppose Gillibrand, but none have the cache of any of the three men who have declined.

Sen. Schumer looked to be vulnerable earlier this year, as his approval numbers slipped below 50% for the first time since 2001. Schumer, a fierce partisan warrior, is the No. 3 ranking Democrat in the Senate. As head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006 and 2008, he engineered the Democrats’ current 59-41 majority in the chamber. Schumer is known as a tireless worker and was reelected to his third term in the Senate with 71% of the vote in 2004. 

In an ordinary year, Schumer would only draw token opposition. But conservative economist, columnist and television personality Larry Kudlow flirted with the idea of mounting a challenge to him, as did former Bush Administration spokesman Dan Senor.

In the governor’s race, the New York GOP has the opposite problem. It has declared candidates, but has been unable to unite behind one challenger to the expected bid from Cuomo. Former congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Rick Lazio has been making the rounds since last fall, gathering support among GOP and New York Conservative Party county chairmen. Lazio has been running a traditionally conservative issues-oriented campaign, promising to fix a “broken” state government in Albany through tax cuts, spending reductions, and eliminating state mandates on local governments.

The other announced candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination is Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat. Levy was courted and induced to run by first-year NYGOP Chairman Ed Cox. Suffolk County Republicans endorsed Levy in his last election campaign, when he appeared on both the Democratic and Republican ballot lines and received a whopping 96% of the vote. Levy is known as a fiscally conservative Democrat who has cut both taxes and spending at the county level in his six years in the executive office. He is also known as a staunch opponent of illegal immigration. 

Lazio claims the support of a majority of the delegates in the upcoming state party convention, a figure made more significant by Levy’s party registration. Levy’s promised party switch will not become official until after the November election. Therefore, as a registered Democrat seeking the Republican nomination, state law requires him to garner a majority of the delegate vote at the convention to remain on the ballot. Both the Lazio and Levy campaigns express confidence that their respective sides will be able to post a majority of the vote at the convention.

While the Republicans fight among themselves, Cuomo has yet to officially announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, although some Democrats expect him to throw his hat in the ring as early as this week. 

One experienced Republican campaign operative told HUMAN EVENTS that the infighting has taken a toll on Republicans’ chances of pulling the upset. “Cuomo is seen as damaged goods who will attract a lot of friendly fire,” the operative said. “Local Republican leadership [is] just totally disengaged. They’re just waiting for someone to show up with a lot of money, and then they’ll support him. It’s disgraceful. There’s definitely a sense that this is a year with a lot of opportunity, but the focus is on the local races rather than the statewide.”

New York holds its primaries in early September, so there is still time for the party to sort out its recruiting in the Senate races and settle on a candidate for governor. But some in the party sense that time is quickly running out. In a year in which Republicans have scored high-profile upset victories in neighboring New Jersey and Massachusetts, New York has yet to see the first ripples of the Republican wave many that veteran election watchers feel is sweeping across the country.

Cartoon courtesy of Brett Noel