Joe Lhota struggles with national GOP backlash

Joe Lhota campaigning for New York City mayor

Joe Lhota campaigning for New York City mayor at the steps of the Flushing Library, receives the endorsement of the Flushing Congreso De Latinos Unidos and Statewide Association Minority Business. (Oct. 3, 2013) Photo Credit: Uli Seit

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Days after Bill de Blasio won the Democratic mayoral nomination, his party's elite lined up in support: New York's governor and U.S. senators, as well as the president, a former president and a potential president.

National Republicans issued no comparable declarations for de Blasio's GOP rival, Joe Lhota. For months, he's had to disavow much of his party. Last Tuesday, he denounced the congressional GOP's role in the federal government's shutdown, calling the tea party movement "flat-out wrong," "extremists" and "a bad force."

Anyone who would "tag me with what's going on in Washington," he told reporters, is making a "big mistake."

 

'Spillover' from shutdown

Backlash over the shutdown threatens to further complicate Lhota's task of closing a 50-point gap, as shown by two polls last week, in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1. Lhota has no big-name national surrogates to campaign for him or to fundraise, as Hillary Clinton plans to do for de Blasio.

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"You only have a limited amount of resources if you're a New York City Republican. You don't want Ted Cruz putting a TV ad for you in New York," said Tom Doherty, a onetime top aide to former Gov. George Pataki and now a GOP strategist, referring to the conservative Texas senator in the forefront of the shutdown battle.

Extensive media coverage of the shutdown further hurts Lhota, experts said.

"That's a challenge right now for any Republican who runs for City Hall, because I think the other side will connect the dots and say, 'He's one of them,' " said Vito Fossella, the former Staten Island Republican congressman.

Lhota's frustration was evident in a CNBC interview Friday. "I'm being burdened by what the crazy part of the Republican Party is doing in Washington," he said. "There's a spillover effect. I've separated myself as much as I can."

Besides Hillary Clinton, de Blasio has endorsements from President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand -- all highly popular with New Yorkers, according to an August Siena poll.

As for Lhota, even his former boss and top Republican backer, Rudy Giuliani, whom he served as deputy mayor and budget director, could do more harm than good: A Marist poll found the former mayor's support would make 51 percent of voters less likely to back Lhota.

 

Money matters

Republicans typically have trouble connecting with voters in New York City, and rarely overcome the registration disadvantage, said Joseph Mercurio, a veteran political consultant who has worked for candidates of both parties.

To be sure, Republicans won the last five mayoral elections, and the candidates, like Lhota, were far more liberal than the national GOP norm. But Giuliani, a former prosecutor, benefited from public discontent over crime. Michael Bloomberg was elected in the aftermath of 9/11 -- and only after bankrolling his first run with $73 million of his own fortune.

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This year, both candidates are participating in the city's public-financing system, which limits spending to $6.4 million each. And demographic shifts since Giuliani's and Bloomberg's elections have left the city with fewer people who are potential Lhota voters, Mercurio said.

In his campaign's first TV ad of the season, Lhota highlighted his identical positions to de Blasio on same-sex marriage and abortion, but said, unlike de Blasio, he'd save taxpayer money. But as Lhota tries to position himself as a different Republican than his national brethren, his Democratic opponent contends otherwise. The de Blasio campaign has attacked Lhota over his professed admiration for the late Arizona senator Barry Goldwater -- the "Mr. Conservative" of his day -- and for raising money from some donors who also bankroll tea party causes.

Billionaire industrialist David Koch and his wife, Julia, each donated $4,950, the legally allowed maximum, to the Lhota campaign and gave almost $300,000 to an independent group supporting Lhota. On Tuesday, a federal judge is to hear arguments on a suit by another pro-Lhota group seeking to overturn the state's $150,000 limit on individual donations of that kind, saying Alabama conservative Shaun McCutcheon wants to give it at least $200,000.

Lhota defended Koch as being in sync with his own views: fiscally conservative but socially liberal, and noted that Koch also gave to Cuomo. "If I'm tied to the tea party, so's Andrew Cuomo," Lhota fired back.

Some tea partyers tend to avoid New York races because they consider the city "a lost cause," said Dan McLaughlin, a blogger for conservative RedState.com, and are resigned to letting left-leaning candidates like de Blasio get elected "and burn the city to the ground."

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