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What’s the Matter with the New York State GOP?

Winnable Races, but too few Candidates

In the wake of Scott Brown’s upset win in Massachusetts, Blue-Chip GOP candidates are coming out of the woodwork around the country. But there seems to be little progress in dark blue New York – at least when it comes to statewide races. With a dearth of good candidates (so far), New York may be one state where Democrats dodge a Republican wave that seems set to sweep the nation in 10 months.

This year the Empire State is host to a bevy of statewide contests. Voters will elect two US Senators, a Governor, Attorney General and Comptroller. At this point, there are two Republican candidates declared for those contests: former Representative Rick Lazio for Governor, and former County Legislator Bruce Blakeman for Kirsten Gillibrand’s Senate seat. Admittedly, New York has few top-tier Republican candidates – especially after 3 consecutive disastrous cycles. But polls show that Gillibrand is eminently beatable. And the Governor’s race should be appealing as well – even if you assume that Andrew Cuomo will defeat incumbent David Paterson in a primary.

The main story on the Republican side has been of heavyweights who take a pass. And this is a state with few Republican heavyweights. The list probably begins and ends with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. While Giuliani considered both gubernatorial and Senate races, state Republicans grumbled about his ‘Hamlet Act.’ Eventually party leaders moved to line up other candidates for those races, and Giuliani decided he wasn’t interested, anyway.

Almost by default, former Governor George Pataki makes the list as well – despite having left the governorship with approval ratings in the 30s back in 2006. But that was then, and this is now. Pataki leaders Gillibrand in Senate polling. The last prominent Republican widely looked to as a potential statewide candidate is Congressman Peter King – one of just 2 Republicans in the state’s House delegation. King ultimately decided to run for re-election, rather than seek a promotion.

Admittedly, there’s a relatively thin bench to work with – at least, this year. The state’s Republicans had a great year in 2009 – taking over several key counties, and winning city council seats across the state. In a few years, the people who won in 2009 and 2010 will challenge for higher office, but few are ready now.

When it comes to the Gillibrand Senate seat, a host of names have been floated. Giuliani, Pataki, and King (twice) have all been rumored for the seat. So have Marc Mukasey – the son of the former Attorney General – and Sue Molinari – who was last elected in New York in 1996, and who currently resides in Virginia. After Scott Brown’s win there’s been more speculation about Pataki, again. But a round of calls to Republican operatives found no one who expected him to run. And a well-placed Republican strategist describes it as ‘a longshot;’ party leaders are actively pursuing other candidates.

Things are marginally better when it comes to the gubernatorial race. The lone Republican candidate – Rick Lazio – has run statewide before. He was defeated by Hillary Clinton 55%-43% in the 2000 Senate race – a race in which he was a late substitute for Rudy Giuliani. Lazio is slowly and steadily winning endorsements, but some party leaders are looking for another candidate. There’s been talk about Erie County Executive Chris Collins (who’s now definitively out of the race), and even former State Senator Mike Balboni – who jumped from the State Senate to a job in the Spitzer administration, helping the Democrat party retake control of that body.

In the last few weeks things have gotten bizarre, as Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy has reportedly been in discussion with GOP leaders about switching parties and running for Governor. It’s been reported that Levy wants the GOP to clear the field for him – a stunning request for a turncoat with little name ID. Because Levy is a fiscal conservative who’s run with Republican and Conservative party backing in the past, his running as a Republican shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. But it says a lot that some party leaders are courting him for any statewide race.

The news isn’t all bad. It appears that one legitimate candidate may soon declare for state comptroller. And a number of strong candidates have stepped up for House races. (In fact, no state has more Democrat Congressional seats on Charlie Cook’s 2010 watch list than New York – which has a whopping eight). Plus, the filing deadline is not until July, so there’s time for candidates to jump in.

But whether because of a thin bench, the high cost of statewide races, or the fact that state legislators look like bad candidates right now, there’s not a lot of candidate for high-priority races. And if Gillibrand, Schumer, and either Paterson or Cuomo prevail without strong challenges, New Yorkers will be kicking themselves for years.

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