ALBANY -- Eight years without holding any statewide office, four years after the state Republican chairman endorsed a Democrat for governor, and weeks after a messy fight for the soul of the party by millionaire conservatives Carl Paladino and Donald Trump, New York's Republican Party believes it has found its way again.
Though the obstacles are many as the party heads into its state convention next Wednesday, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino has cleared the Republican and Conservative field of Trump and Paladino in the governor's race. John Cahill, the former top aide to moderate Gov. George Pataki from the Republican Party's heyday, is eyeing the attorney general's race. And this year's experiment to provide 6-to-1 matching funds from the state in the comptroller's race makes the seat ripe for a challenge.
"You have actual Republican candidates who are credible as people who have won elections in competitive Democratic constituencies," said political science Professor Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz, noting state Republican chairman Ed Cox "is better situated to focus on center-right candidates who could be successful."
Cox said he also hopes to ride a wave of anti-Obama sentiment in this year's midterm congressional races to bring out Republican, Conservative and voters not registered in any party.
In that mix is a frequently ignored bloc of rural voters -- which state records peg at more than 2 million -- in more conservative upstate areas. A slight majority of them are Republicans and Cox is hoping the additional 400,000 voters not registered with a party will trend Republican, or at least anti-Democratic. The midterm congressional elections and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's 2013 gun control law could energize that rural bloc.
Taking the rural road
On paper, Republicans, Conservatives and unaffiliated voters together can match the Democratic enrollment advantage of 2 to 1 statewide over Republicans.
It's a narrow route, but the rural vote along with the critical, but divided suburban vote could overwhelm the traditional low turnout of heavily Democratic New York City in state races.
"Rural voters are much more persistent voters than urban voters, so the fundamental point is that the downstate numbers can be overcome if the downstate vote is normal, or even suppressed, by a lack of incentive" to got to the polls, Benjamin said.
The task, however, remains daunting. Democrats have far more money, younger voters and a popular governor pushing a list of accomplishments. Republicans also face a liberal-leaning electorate and Democrats pressing national hot-button issues such as abortion rights and immigration that can roil state races. And a Republicans for Cuomo group of business operators complicates GOP challenges.
Republicans also face a problem from within. Some of their mostly likely statewide candidates can't run. Former state Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick) left for a private sector job this year, state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) is running for Congress, and many other likely veterans, such as state Sen. John Flanagan (R-Northport), need to hold their Senate seats to protect the Republicans' share of majority control with a coalition of breakaway Democrats.
"The essential problem for Republicans in statewide contests is that their enrollment is steadily declining," said political science Professor Jeffrey Stonecash of Syracuse University's Maxwell School. "Any Republican candidate starts out with a limited base. It would take a significant misstep [by Democrats] . . . and that has not happened yet."
Cox said the Republican Party is starting to benefit from the lessons of top national strategists, including former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
"We learned from Haley Barbour that if you don't have a strong state organization, you are trying to draw on an inside straight," Cox said of the long-odds card play.
Election records show minority parties have their best shot against severe enrollment disadvantages in the highest offices, which can attract better candidates. Republicans also have won some big suburban county executive races in recent years as well as congressional seats. They also face Democrats for comptroller and attorney general who remain little known in statewide polls.
Rekindling the GOP fire
Democrats may be showing some concern. In March, Cuomo hired Republican strategist Susan Del Percio as a special adviser. Del Percio, who ran John Faso's Republican campaign for governor in 2006, makes $160,000 working for Cuomo, taking her off the market for Republican campaigns this year. Cuomo also has made frequent trips to the battleground of Long Island and built a very public relationship with Republican Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano.
Cox says the spark of optimism came in the party's grimmest moment, at the University Club in Manhattan, days after the November 2008 elections swept Republicans from every statewide office and a half-century of control of the Senate.
Several top Republican strategists were at the social club that night, including former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia and some former staffers for former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. But Cox remembers it was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who made the embers glow again.
"Everyone is just depressed. I mean, we lost everything," Cox said in an interview. He remembers trying to rally the party's boldface names with, "We're going to have a great two-year cycle."
"And then Gingrich comes up and says, 'You are absolutely right,' " Cox remembered. "Then he helped us strategize with his bright ideas on building a bench. And that led to 2009, when things started really happening."