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The Republican Party's Diminishing Strength in New York

by Gerald Benjamin, Jun 07, 2004
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•Related, by Fred Siegel and Harry Siegel:
The Short-Lived GOP Revival

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As befits a conservative crowd, the Republican Party has not rushed into New York City. The party was founded on July 6, 1854. It will open its first national nominating convention in New York City on August 30, 2004 — just over a century and a half later.

The GOP says that it is finally coming to New York because we offered "the best package of goods and services." Almost certainly the proximity of the convention's dates to the third anniversary of the simultaneous terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, and the courageously aborted attack on Washington D.C., on September 11, 2001 has something to do with it.

The Republican Party does have a long history in New York. But what has the state done for the national GOP lately? Not much. To find the most recent Republican presidential victory in New York State you have to go back 20 years, to the Reagan-Mondale race of 1984. For a victory in the city, you have to go back even farther – to the 1924 election when city voters supported Calvin Coolidge

The pattern is the same for Congress: declining Republican strength in New York. At the turn of the 20th century, both United States senators from New York were Republicans; at the turn of the 21st century, both were Democrats. In 1904, 20 of 37 New York members of the House of Representatives were Republican; in 2004, 19 of 29 New York Congress members were Democrats. Of the 13 members of the U.S. House of Representatives from the city, only one - Vito Fossella of Staten Island – is a Republican.

Governor George Pataki is a Republican. So are New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a majority of the New York State Senate. But the governor gained office in 1994 not as a result of Republican strength, but as the beneficiary of an enormous electoral backlash against the three-term incumbent Democrat, Mario Cuomo. Pataki has held on for two additional terms through full use of the powers of incumbency, something that almost all modern New York governors have been able to use to their advantage. The State Senate remains Republican in the face of a rising Democratic tide through artful gerrymandering. The Assembly is solidly Democratic.

The mayor is a Republican by convenience; the GOP was simply a vehicle for his seeking and gaining office. Bloomberg's unsuccessful effort to make nominations for citywide office nonpartisan (see related article, "The Short-Lived GOP Revival" by Fred Siegel and Harry Siegel) was just one of many clear indications of his discomfort with the party label and his desire to free himself of its constraints.

The old metaphor used to describe the geography of New York politics was "the upstate-downstate split." Democrats dominated in New York City; Republicans ruled (with a few exceptions) to the east, north and west. But today many rural and suburban districts in the state elect Democrats to represent them in Congress. Suburban counties like Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester have Democratic county executives. Democrats have been gaining enrollment pluralities or virtual parity in many upstate counties. Statewide, the last year in which New York Republican's voter enrollment exceeded that for the state's Democrats was 1956. In March of this year, there were over 2 million more enrolled Democrats than Republicans in New York State.

And New York is not just a Democratic state, but a liberal Democratic state. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, New York voters were more supportive of affirmative action, more strongly against the death penalty and more pro-choice than voters surveyed in a national sample.

Ever since the mid-1960s, the national parties have become increasing divided along ideological lines, with Republicans more conservative and Democrats more liberal. At the same time, the center of political gravity in the nation has moved, with the population, to the south and west.

This has put New York Republicans at a disadvantage. The state's Republican leaders rose to national prominence when the kinds of moderate, pragmatic politics and policies that succeeded for them in New York were those that Republicans thought were necessary to win nationally. But the ideological polarization of the major parties made these appeals less attractive to the more conservative national GOP, while at the same time making the GOP less attractive to New Yorkers.

The failed national career of Nelson Rockefeller tracks the decline of New York Republicanism as a national force. In 1960, the newly elected New York governor threatened to take the presidential nomination by storm. Vice President Richard Nixon met with Rockefeller at the governor's Fifth Avenue apartment. The two negotiated the famous "compact of Fifth Avenue". In return for Rockefeller removing himself from contention, Nixon agreed to various things Rockefeller wanted in the Republican platform, including, a stronger position in favor of civil rights. Conservatives responded with outrage.

In 1964, Rockefeller was the center of a jeering confrontation at the national convention as he condemned "extremists [who] feed on fear, hate and terror, [and have] no program for America and the Republican Party." The party that year turned decisively rightward and nominated Barry Goldwater for president. In 1976 Gerald Ford, under conservative pressure, removed Rockefeller (appointed, not elected, to the post) from his ticket. No New York Republican has been a serious contender for the national ticket since.

At the same time, the painful truth is that slow-growing New York has become increasingly less important in national electoral politics. When Dwight Eisenhower was nominated in 1952, the state had 45 electoral votes; this year it will cast just 31. Republican presidential aspirants may need the campaign money they raise here, but they have shown that they can win the presidency without New York's electoral votes. And the kind of appeals that could win a national Republican candidate the votes of a majority of skeptical New Yorkers might very well lose them GOP votes elsewhere in the country.

In short, over the last 30 years, national Republicans have learned to win without New York. If they forgot that lesson - and focused on winning the state - the positions might well cost them the votes of the increasingly conservative party faithful elsewhere in the country.

Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist, is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY New Paltz and a former Republican elected official.


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