For some New York Republicans, the deciding moment in this year's race for governor came five months ago - not on Election Day - when the party refused to allow Steve Levy to run in its primary, closing the door to his possible general election match against Democrat Andrew Cuomo.
Suffolk County Executive Levy "would have beaten Andrew Cuomo," said Suffolk GOP chairman John Jay LaValle, upset about upstate businessman Carl Paladino's drubbing by Cuomo on Tuesday. "People in New York had to hold their nose and vote for Andrew Cuomo because they felt the options were severely limited."
LaValle's lament highlights the recriminations now common in GOP circles on Long Island and statewide.
After a sweeping loss of statewide races, the New York State Republican Party is struggling to deal with the growing tea party influence, a broken fundraising machine and post-Paladino regrets about lost opportunities in a year where the GOP seemed to be winning everywhere else. Statewide, the GOP lost not only the governor's race but also those for state Comptroller, state Attorney General and two U.S. Senate seats - though the party did pick up five House seats.
Internecine war next?
What likely looms next for the state GOP is an internecine war between state GOP chairman Edward Cox and his predecessor, Nassau GOP leader Joseph Mondello, according to political experts. The two struggled at last June's GOP convention, as Mondello backed former Long Island Congressman Rick Lazio while Cox and LaValle supported Levy's bid. Lazio became the party's designee but lost overwhelmingly to Paladino in the Sept. 14 primary.
On election night, Mondello told Newsday columnist Joye Brown that he'd be open to coming back as state chairman, even though Cox has another year to serve on a two-year term. Mondello's differences with Cox have been evident since Mondello left the state post in late 2009, amid internal criticism, especially upstate, from Republicans frustrated that the GOP had been shut out of major statewide and federal offices.
While Mondello and other GOP county chiefs have expressed unhappiness with Cox - with some even calling for his resignation - due to the disappointing Election Day results statewide, others disagree.
"You don't start, the day after the election, blaming just one person for the failures," Albany GOP chief John Graziano said in defending Cox.
Cox said he doesn't expect an interparty fight: "We shouldn't have a blame game, but ask how do we build the Republican Party so we can go forward."
Graziano agreed that the crucial moment for the GOP's chances came after Levy garnered 28 percent of the convention vote. That made him eligible for the primary ballot, but he failed in a second vote to gain a majority needed for a special waiver to run as a recently-converted Democrat.
Mondello: 'No regrets'
In an interview, Mondello said he has "no regrets at all" about leading the charge in the second vote to deny Levy his next-step chance to face Cuomo. "I think Steve Levy is a fine county executive and that's where he should stay," Mondello said. "He may have changed his registration at the last minute but I still see him as a Democrat. . . . There was no way I was going to let a Democrat carry the banner of our party."
Both Graziano and LaValle also said the party's persistent money woes hampered several statewide candidates, and that the party must do a better job of appealing for funding from traditional supporters on Wall Street, upstate and in suburbs such as Long Island.
Political experts also say the rise of the tea party in New York is a major factor in the GOP's future - though it's a two-edged sword. Around the nation, the lack of traditional vetting of some tea party-backed first-time candidates led to some major embarrassments.
Still, GOP officials say they want to harness the grassroots energy of the tea party, which helped propel Paladino to his primary victory and could be a deciding edge in future races for the GOP.
"We want to go parallel with the tea party, not incorporate them," said Cox, pointing to tea party affiliates' impact on several state legislature and congressional races won Tuesday by Republicans.