ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Republicans are about to get their best chance in years to take back state government: A five-alarm scandal that’s left Gov. Andrew Cuomo facing an impeachment inquiry and multiple investigations.
But 15 years after the departure of George Pataki — a moderate and the only Republican to win a New York governor’s race in five decades — the GOP is bucking conventional wisdom that suggests a center-right gubernatorial candidate is their best, perhaps only, shot at success.
Party leaders from across the state, looking to avoid a potential civil war, have been rallying around Rep. Lee Zeldin of Long Island — a Donald Trump-loving conservative who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election and has fought ardently to oppose abortion rights. Other contenders look much the same and include upstate firebrand Rep. Elise Stefanik and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s son, Andrew Giuliani. Both are also backers of Trump, who lost the state by some 2 million votes last year.
The dynamics are not the result of choice or strategy but rather environment. The GOP is nearly decimated across the state, and with a polarized landscape on the heels of a Trump presidency, it might be impossible to find a GOP candidate who can appeal to center-right Democrats and independents — especially one who has the kind of financing and zeal Zeldin does.
The next George Pataki simply doesn't exist.
“Right now, it’s beginning to look like searching for a unicorn, because such a Republican is not likely to emerge from the primary,” said Bruce Gyory, a long-time Democratic strategist in Albany.
On Friday, Zeldin notched another clear marker when he announced he’d been backed by Republican county chairs representing more than half the party’s weighted vote, positioning him as the party’s designated gubernatorial candidate if the support holds until next year’s convention.
It’s not the same as a nomination; any Republican who secures 25 percent of the weighted vote at the convention would automatically receive a spot on the primary ballot, and others would be able to gather petitions for a primary challenge. Ten potential candidates appeared on a poll the party sent out to supporters in mid-April, each of whom had been invited to an in-person vetting in Albany. GOP leaders have also set up times for candidates to come speak to their committees on a regional basis.
But Zeldin’s campaign is far ahead of his peers’. He has been courting local county leaders and hauled in $2.5 million during his campaign’s first 10 days. Zeldin met with the Republican Governors Association executive director Dave Rexrode on Thursday, and has picked up support from leaders of the small-but-powerful Conservative Party in New York.
The goal has always been to get a player in the game sooner rather than later, according to state party chair Nick Langworthy. And when it comes down to the most important factor in choosing a candidate, there’s really only one answer, said Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive who lost to Cuomo in the 2018 general election and is considering another run.
“Winning,” Molinaro said in an interview. “My message is very simple: We just have to be unified. This is not going to be easy no matter who the candidate is.”
Zeldin has not made an effort so far to downplay his record or connections.
When asked at the Albany vetting session about how his relationship with Trump and his anti-abortion record might play in a general election, Zeldin characterized them as distractions and said he would instead “triple down” on the issues that he says matter most to the New Yorkers with whom he has been speaking.
“They are saying, ‘if you don't run, and you don’t win, I'm leaving,’” he told reporters and party leadership during the mid-April candidate forum. “And I'm telling you the issues that they are citing are issues related to the economy, issues related to public safety, issues related to education, and being embarrassed about the governor. And I'm just going to continue to focus on what New Yorkers are telling me they want me to be focused on.”
Still, there's little question that a Republican candidate for statewide office in New York cannot simply rely on fellow party members to win a general election. Former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, another potential candidate who has been aggressively wooing local party leaders, said as much during the forum in Albany, noting that bringing in Democrats would be vital during the general election.
Astorino speaks from experience — he lost to Cuomo in 2014 by 14 points. But the plan he floated for 2022 didn’t include highlighting bipartisanship as much as communicating the Republican message to a wider audience, maybe in Spanish, he said.
“Hablo español y esto es muy importante: because I’m going to be able to go into neighborhoods and espouse our virtues as a Republican, and talk about issues that are important, not just in the Hispanic community,” he said. He pointed to support he received from the NAACP and members of the African American and Hispanic communities during his past campaigns. “That’s how I won in Westchester,” he said.
For years political observers have theorized that if the GOP wished to break the recent Democratic monopoly on the governor's office, it would have to follow the playbook of 1994, when Pataki beat Mario Cuomo as a pro-choice, pro-environment center-right candidate with a reputation for a quieter pragmatism that contrasted with Cuomo’s more dramatic politicking.
It was a different time; the Republican party had vital anchors across New York — a more vibrant presence upstate, failsafe Republican strongholds on Long Island, an incumbent U.S. senator in Al D’Amato, who functioned as a party boss, a healthy GOP majority in the state Senate and a new mayor in New York City, Rudy Giuliani, the first Republican to win the city's top job since John Lindsay in 1965.
In theory, a well-funded moderate candidate — someone like central New York’s longtime GOP Rep. John Katko — could thread the ideological needle to pose a true challenge to a Democrat next year, said Gyory, the Albany political strategist. But first he or she would have to get through the primary, and that could lead to problems. More New York voters are affiliated with no party than they are registered as Republicans — appealing to them in a general election after winning over the GOP's pro-Trump conservatives will be difficult, Gyory said.
There are about 6.7 million registered Democrats in New York, about 3 million registered in no party, and about 2.9 million registered Republicans.
Though Zeldin already clinched the support of several key county chairs, others who are still waiting on feedback from members said they, too, welcome his momentum and energy.
“I don’t think there is a slow button on Lee Zeldin,” Albany County Republican Party Chair Randy Bashwinger said in an interview. “He is very aggressive, a very energetic person, and that’s what we need … He’s proven he can win [downstate], and proven he can raise money.”
Richard L. Andres Jr., who heads the Niagara County Republicans, thinks voters want a “clear choice” between candidates because they are more clearly defining themselves than they were in ’94, when the parties were less ideological.
Republicans have pointed out that in 2020 Trump received tens of thousands more votes in New York City than he did in 2016, driven in part by gains in Latino-majority communities like the Bronx. But he still lost the state by more than 20 percentage points both years.
So this year, Republicans are banking on the idea that traditional issues — taxes and crime, for starters — will play better next year than in 2018.
“We’ve always felt that we’ve had a message that would appeal should we be able to get it out,” Andres Jr. said. With Trump in the White House, he said, the language from the party leader was “was so over the top our candidates locally couldn’t cut through the noise and there was no way to distinguish between his policies and our policies.
“Now there’s time before election day to do that. Midterms have historically went in favor of the challenging party and I’m hoping history repeats itself,” he said. “I’m a government teacher, I’m a history teacher. There’s a 150 years of history telling me its going to be a good year for Republicans, the question is just how good?”
Could Andres be right about history repeating itself? That may depend on who the Democrat will be. Cuomo said in 2019 that he intended to run for a fourth term and, despite the scandals eating away at his popularity, has not rescinded that position. When asked in March about his intentions for 2022, a his fellow Democrats began calling for his resignation in droves, Cuomo responded that it was “not a day for politics.”
The governor, who must contend with an impeachment inquiry and multiple criminal criminal investigations, is facing accusations of sexual misconduct and claims he hid the number of Covid-related deaths tied to nursing homes. Just 40 percent of New York voters say they view Cuomo favorably, while 52 percent view him unfavorably — a record, according to an April Siena College Research Institute. That’s down from 77-21 a year ago.
Should Cuomo resign or decide not to run for a fourth term, GOP leaders and consultants acknowledge that a fresh face in the form of Attorney General Tish James or Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul would change the nature of the race. But, so far, no Democrat has declared a 2022 bid for governor.
The GOP is banking on running against Cuomo for a fourth time and counting on the idea that New Yorkers are fed up with more than a decade of his leadership.
That’s where some 1994 parallels do get to play. Pataki’s victory is widely attributed, among other things, to “Cuomo fatigue” that characterized Mario Cuomo’s third term. And Pataki ran on simple concepts that hit close to home: cut taxes, cut spending, snuff out crime.
That same policy messaging is relevant again in 2021, with the GOP assailing Cuomo and Democrats for raising taxes and passing controversial criminal justice reform bills when they regained two-house rule 2019.
Those issues and the general sense of exhaustion — rather than political affiliations — should be enough for anyone on the fence to support a change in leadership next year, Kings County GOP chair Ted Ghorra said.
“Taking all other factors out — New Yorkers need to think with their heads, and not their hearts,” he said. “Just seeing what one-party rule has done? It should largely be based on policy and common sense.”
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