Earlier this month Republican State Chairman Ed Cox shook up the political narrative by backing a Democrat -- Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy-- to run for governor on the Republican ticket. The move angered some in his party who back Republican candidate Rick Lazio; it enraged conservatives and tea party members who do not want a Democrat at the top of the Republican ticket. But at the same time it put the names of the Republican candidates into the headlines and steered the conversation away from assumed Democratic nominee Andrew Cuomo.
"We've heard more from Lazio in the last few weeks, since Levy entered the race, than we have in the last five months," said Alex Carey, director of communications for the New York State Republican Party. "The public is now paying attention. All we heard about before was Cuomo and Paterson."
Cox's move is a brazen gamble, and he has a lot to lose, but with every major state office and both houses of the legislature in Democratic hands, some say Cox had to do something bold. While the Democrats are dogged by scandal and allegations of gross mismanagement of the state government, the Republicans so far have not been able to capitalize on that. Cox has been unable to find Republican candidates with a realistic chance of actually winning statewide office -- or energizing the party. Now, Cox hopes, Levy will do that -- and bring the Republicans, seemingly lost in the political desert after the 2008 elections, back to power and influence in Albany.
High Stakes Contest
The results in November will determine not just who holds what state office but also the very future of the Republican Party in New York.
Following the 2010 census the legislature will have the power to redistrict the state. Experts say that, as Republican support in the state declined and population in the state has shifted to urban areas the party maintained political relevance in the state by controlling the districting process. In New York State, the legislature and the governor control redistricting. Last time around -- in 2001 -- the party held the State Senate and the governorship. This let them draw the lines to their advantage.
Now the Democrats control both houses of the legislature and the governorship. If the GOP does not win back two Senate seats to regain the majority there, the party will find itself facing permanent irrelevancy. "They are in danger of entering a state of being a perpetual minority party," said Ken Sherrill, a professor emeritus at Hunter College. "Malapportionment is the only thing keeping them near political power."
Some Republicans see things coming together so they can do that. "This will be the best year Republicans have had in 50 years," State Republican Chairman Ed Cox said during a recent interview.
Cox thinks the public will turn to Republicans in reaction to the passage of national health care reform, smoldering scandals that have marred Democratic control of Albany and the economy. "If you take a look at the big issues, economic issues, we have to close a $9 billion budget gap that will become a $20 billion deficit by the time the next elected governor takes office," said Cox. "The Democrats who control Albany can't confront it because of distractions: the scandal of an unelected governor who is being investigated by an attorney general who failed to recluse himself until after a 13 point drop in the polls. An unelected comptroller because of corruption by staffers of the previous comptroller. Democrats control the Senate, and both leaders are under investigations for problems that they have. It is a mess!"
Cox said the public will come to the conclusion that, "the political solution to this is to vote in a Republican governor who is fiscally conservative and a Republican Senate. Together they will be able to solve the problem. Being fiscally conservative is in our DNA."
Democrats counter that Republicans were in charge of the governorship and Senate for years and did not exercise much fiscal conservatism then.
Cox points out that a number of major Democrats were not elected by voters, but were instead appointed, either due to scandal or a seat opening. Those unelecteds include Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Comptroller Thomas Dinapoli and Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch.
No one denies that scandal has dogged the Democrats during their recent period of control in Albany. The fall of Eliot Spitzer, the scandal surrounding Allan Hevesi, the domestic abuse trial of Hiram Monserrate, the continuing scandals and gaffes surrounding Gov. David Paterson -- and even the odd saga emanating from Rep. Eric Massa have left the Democrats scrambling to emphasize their accomplishments and push the ugly past under the carpet as they head into election season.
Yet the Republican Party is not exactly a betting favorite among political observers.
The top of the Republican ticket has Sherrill doubtful that the GOP can make any great gains come this fall. "They are right to think they have things going in their favor, but it's not clear they are going to get things together to have the ability to take advantage of it," Sherrill said, pointing out that the party does not yet have any challenger to Sen. Chuck Schumer or "formidable candidates" for attorney general, state comptroller or to face Paterson-appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
"To use a sports metaphor," said Baruch professor of political science Douglas Muzzio, "the Republicans don't have a starting team, they don't have a bench and they traded to get a guy from the other team."
Gambling on Levy
That "trade, as Muzzio calls it, has produced major tension within the Republican ranks. Insiders say Lazio supporters, including former Sen. Al D'Amato and former governor George Pataki, are very unhappy with Cox and would rather lose this year than see Cox get his way. "It looks like the Republicans have borrowed the Democrats' strategy of a circular firing squad," said Muzzio, "It is civil war."
Levy's nomination is by no means assured. He must now secure 51 percent of the party support at the convention to even get on the primary ballot, because he still is technically a Democrat. The struggle is on between the two candidates with the Conservative Party and tea party supporters insisting they will back Lazio into the general election. Observers say the move could lead to the kind of split that occurred in the race for Congress from New York's 23rd district upstate. Republicans backed moderate Republican Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava while conservatives got behind Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava eventually quit the race but Democratic nominee Bill Owens was able to take the seat thanks to the split.
Cox sees little reason for his fellow party members not to back Levy.
"This is not a party of exclusion," said Cox of the move. "Levy is a real fiscal conservative. There is no Republican who is more fiscally conservative than Steve Levy."
Lazio supporters counter the Levy is in actuality a liberal and have put out numerous talking points attacking Levy in that manner. Lazio scored a recent victory by winning the endorsement of Nassau County Executive Ed Magano. Magano announced on Wednesday that he is "joining the Republican and Conservative Parties by endorsing Rick Lazio for Governor because of his solutions to change Albany. Rick will be a stronger partner for reducing taxes and fostering a business climate that puts people back to work in Nassau County. Rick has the right experience and the right message to succeed in November."
Trouble at the Top?
Cox also has come in for criticism for not being able to coax a big Republican name to challenge Gillibrand, whose poll numbers have remained stagnant since Paterson appointed her. A number of big-name Republicans have been rumored to be considering a challenge, but so far only lesser known candidates have announced. Pataki is one name who has yet to decide if he will challenge Gillibrand.
"I'm not sure you need a big name to win," said Cox, who pointed to the victories of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown over Attorney General Martha Coakley and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, who upset incumbent Tom Suozzi in November. "An unknown named Pataki came out of nowhere to beat Mario Cuomo," said Cox, "It just takes someone the public trusts."
Sherrill isn't so sure. He says without big, established names at the top of the ticket Republicans will have a hard time enticing voters to the booth to vote for candidates whose names appear lower on the ballot. "You can't beat somebody with nobody," he said.
That may hurt Republican chances to take two State Senate seats away from the Democrats and regain the GOP majority there. Sherrill says this should be within reach -- if Republicans can get their ticket in order. "They may have a better chance of that because of dissatisfaction with Albany, but again, if there is no one at the top of the ticket, there won't be any coattails," Sherrill said.
Muzzio agrees a Republican Senate majority be within their grasp and questions how much the top of the ticket will matter. "My gut tells me Levy, given his war chest and combative nature may have longer coat tails but politics is local," he said.
Cox pointed to a number of seats he thinks Republicans will wrest from Democrats because of local issues.
Sen. Darrel Aubertine, who holds the 48th district in northern upstate, faces a challenge from Patty Ritchie. Ritchie is currently a county clerk. "She was the clerk who first opposed the license plate fee that was just an insane move by Democrats," said Cox. "It was just another dumb way to come up with money."
On Long Island, Cox points to the Senate seat currently held by Brian Foley. He says Foley "took some bad votes that didn't match the needs of the district." The votes Cox is referring to include a vote to support the MTA bailout, which also established a payroll tax, and a vote for same-sex marriage. He says he is confident that Republican challenger Lee Zeldin will win.
Cox thinks Assemblyman Jack Quinn has a very good chance of unseating Democrat Sen. William Stachowski in the 58th Senate district around Buffalo. Stachowski has held the seat since 1981 and had a very tough time getting reelected in 2008. While Cox said he thinks Stachowski may be vulnerable because "he's been there a long time, maybe too long," he may also be having trouble because the Democratic leadership denied him the Finance Committee Chairmanship, which he was expected to inherit. This could reinforce the view upstate that the Democratic leadership, dominated by senators from New York City has ditched upstate Democrats. Stachowksi, who leans right, also voted no on gay marriage and is facing a number of primary challengers. Liz Benjamin reported earlier this year that Democrats are trying to push Stachowski out of the race to replace him with a more popular Democratic candidate so they don't have to spend money defending his seat.
But some Republican seats could be in play as well. Another New York incumbent, Republican Sen. Frank Padavan, had a rough reelection bid in 2008, pulling out a victory with a mere 480 vote lead against Democratic challenger James Gennarro. Democrats are confident Padavan won't be so lucky this year. Former 19th district Councilman Tony Avella has announced he will challenge Padavan. Sherrill thinks it will be a daunting challenge for Republicans to hold the seat. "The elderly constituents are aging out of the district or moving out," said Sherrill. He said Padavan's victory will depend a lot on "the top of the ticket."
But Cox sees things differently. He said in 2008 Democrats had momentum, but things have changed since then. He points out that three City Council seats in Queens were won by the Republicans in November. "I think Padavan is going to do well," Cox said. "Last time was a rough year."
Cox, also predicted Republicans "will pick up 15 Assembly seats. That won't give us control, but will allow us to uphold the governor's veto with some conservative upstate Democrats."
"There is no reason we can't win back seats traditionally held by Republicans," said Carey. "People are tired of senators who slash their girlfriend's throat, congressman who are involved in tickling and governors who take Yankees tickets."
Sherrill agrees with Cox that "all the macro things" are trending in the Republican's direction, but he said, "you have to look at whether they are capable of building the infrastructure and campaign to take advantage of thatâ€¦They are under the gun, but I don't know that they can get themselves together to do anything about it. Wishing does not make it so," said Sherrill.