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New York Republicans vs National Republicans

by Joseph Mercurio, Apr 19, 2004
 
 


Related: New York's Republican Values by Frank Padavan

Several years before the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade gave women a right to legal abortions, New York State passed a model pro-choice law extending those protections to New Yorkers. Given the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city and the state, and that the national image of the Democrats is pro-choice and Republicans pro-life, this would seem logical.

However, New York's right-to-choose law did not come from a Democratic administration. When it passed in 1970, the Republican Party controlled both the State Assembly and Senate. Republican State Senator Roy Goodman from the East Side sponsored the bill, and Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed it into law.

New York Republicans - in both the state and city - have long been different from their national colleagues.

While many Democrats in the South opposed the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Republicans from the northeast gave President Lyndon Johnson the votes he needed to pass his Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation. In 1964, the national party selected conservative Barry Goldwater as its presidential nominee over New York Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Today, on many social issues, New York Republicans can be considered progressive, even liberal. New York's most recent prominent Republican officials - Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani - are all pro-choice, pro-gay, anti-gun, and more pro-environment than the national party.

And although local Republicans often claim to be fiscal conservatives, in reality they have resorted to budget gimmicks, tax increases, excessive borrowing using state authorities, and just plain old-fashioned lavish spending. During the 1960s, Governor Rockefeller strayed so far from the small government ideology that his policies helped give birth to the Conservative Party.

Since taking office in 2002, Mayor Bloomberg has further blurred the definition of what it means to be a Republican in New York. A Democrat turned Republican, he governs at odds with both parties - taxing heavily, fighting unions, expanding government, and promoting large-scale development. On important social issues, he has the practical approach of a cranky bean counter leaving the impression with voters that he does not care about people like them.

As the national party becomes increasingly conservative, the gap between local and federal officials becomes wider and wider, and threatens the New York Republican Party.

THE LIABILITY OF THE RIGHT

The difference between New York and national Republicans is at least in part a result of the old adage "all politics are local."

New York is known as a liberal place with liberal voters. Republican here make Democrats in other parts of the country look conservative. Only one Republican presidential candidate since McGovern — Ronald Reagan — has won New York.

In a recent Battleground Poll, 18 percent of voters say they are "very conservative" and 42 percent answered somewhat "conservative." In New York State, only about a quarter of voters describe themselves as conservatives. In New York City, the number of city voters who describe themselves as "conservative" has dropped an average of 9-points over the last four mayoral races.

Polling homogenizes politics as politicians follow voters. And so, over time, it has moved local Republicans to the left. For partly practical reasons, but also because of deeply held beliefs, New York Republicans are less conservative than their counterparts in other parts of the country. Local Republicans can see that being perceived as too conservative has been costly for some in the past.

Senator Alfonse D'Amato, who from the start was to the right of the electorate, did not keep up with the population change in the state, and former Attorney General Dennis Vacco served only one term for the same reason - too conservative. Both men were more like national Republicans than most of their colleagues in the state.

In fact, when the national Republican Party moved far to the right during the Newt Gingrich era of the 1990s local Republicans lost races. This was especially true in the city where that party failed to make gains in open seats and lost incumbents.

In 1992, on the East Side of Manhattan, which once had five local Republicans, Democrat Carolyn Maloney beat out incumbent Bill Green in a race for Congress. Since then, four East Side Republicans - Roy Goodman, Andrew Eristoff, John Ravitz and Charles Millard - who once held office, have not returned. The City Council Republican minority has similarly shrunk.

BRINGING THE GOP TO NYC

The divide between local Republicans and the national party can make it difficult for local officials to get federal aid for New York from a Republican president and a Republican controlled Congress.

However, in early 2003, local Republican leaders - especially Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki - convinced their national party to locate this year's national convention here in New York City. The pitch was that it would be good for New York City's economy, which was devastated after the terrorist attack of September 11, and that it would help build support for their ticket and improve the national party's image.

Now some in the party regret the choice.

President Bush, whose best issue was thought to be his resolve in fighting terrorism, has come under scrutiny by the 9/11 commission hearings. This summer, the president will also have to make his case that he did the right thing in going to war with Iraq in a city that hosted the largest anti-war demonstrations in the nation and that promises to be the scene of more protests during the convention.

Mayor Bloomberg, attentive to Democratic city voters, has distanced himself from the convention. He has not planned to host an event for the leadership and delegates, and he plans to spend more time outside the convention with the police than inside stumping for the candidates and their issues.

If local Republicans continue to move to the left to get votes, local candidates could reach a tipping point where they will no longer be in line with their base reducing turnout among "true believers," costing them additional losses in an increasing number of elections. Incumbency is protecting local Republicans against the mismatch between themselves and their base; and the fact that New York Republicans export very large amounts of campaign money to support more conservative party candidates nationally gives them leeway with their national party leaders.

But nothing can hide the fact that New York Republicans are increasingly different ideologically and in the way they govern from their national party counterparts. The more New York's electorate moves to the left the more this gap will increase - and at some point this disconnect will be too great to go unpunished by both national Republicans and local voters.

Joseph Mercurio has worked as a political consultant for more than 25 years.


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