Rick Lazio smiles after he was nominated the Republican candidate...

Rick Lazio smiles after he was nominated the Republican candidate for New York State Governor, Wednesday. (June 2, 2010) Credit: Howard Schnapp

With the Republican designation for governor now in hand, fundraising remains Rick Lazio's biggest hurdle, according to supporters and critics, with an important test looming that could prove pivotal to his chances of beating Democrat Andrew Cuomo in the fall.

Although he managed to avoid a costly primary battle against Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy as a result of the party's convention last week, Lazio is expected to report less than $5 million on hand when he releases his fundraising totals by the state elections deadline of July 15, according to those familiar with his finances.

By comparison, Cuomo, who has had the Democratic field to himself since Gov. David A. Paterson decided not to run and Levy switched from Democrat to Republican earlier this year, has been collecting money like a seasoned incumbent and is expected to report at least $20 million next month, according to campaign aides.

But Lazio says the potential 4-1 fundraising gap going into the fall campaign doesn't faze him. He says voter anger over the Democrats' handling of state government will trump whatever money shortfalls he may have.

"We'll have every dime we need to win this race," said Lazio at a news conference after winning the party's gubernatorial nod. "We do not have to match Andrew Cuomo."


Money underdog

Money was a prime reason that state GOP chairman Edward Cox wooed Levy into jumping parties and challenging Lazio at the party convention. In January, Lazio reported only about $637,000 in cash, a lack of fundraising prowess that set off alarm bells with Cox and other party elders, aware of Cuomo's then-$16.1 million kitty. Levy at the time had some $4 million on hand.

But the July 15 fundraising report may prove even more crucial for Lazio's chances as potential big-time donors assess his ability to beat Cuomo, said Bill Mahoney, a researcher at the New York Public Interest Research Group, a not-for-profit focused on environmental and government-reform issues. His analysis shows that, as of the Jan. 15 filing date in election years dating back to 2002, Lazio had one of the lowest cash totals among major-party candidates for governor in New York.

"Fundraising has a snowball effect," Mahoney said. "If [Lazio] reports a significant amount, it shows a potential supporter that he's a viable candidate. But if he doesn't have enough, people will be scared away from giving.

"Particularly because of expensive television advertising." Mahoney estimated it would cost between $25 million and $30 million to win this year's governor's race, and said it'd be imperative for Lazio to raise at least $10 million by Labor Day to compete.


Expecting funding bump

Lazio supporters say he's managed to hold on to much of his cash during the intraparty squabble with Levy and are convinced that he won't have any long-term problems in financing a fall campaign.

"Now that he's the designee, I'm confident his fundraising will get a bump," said Andrew Siben, a Bay Shore attorney and a longtime Lazio friend. "As long as Levy was there, people were afraid to give to Rick's campaign. They wanted a clearer playing field."

In the past month alone, Siben said, Lazio's camp had enjoyed a boost in fundraising, as more than 10 informal receptions and parties, including a gathering of Wall Street supporters at the Milleridge Inn in Jericho, were held across Long Island. Siben predicted Lazio would soon narrow his current 40-point gap in the polls against Cuomo and that campaign donations would quickly follow.

In the meantime, Lazio is discounting whatever challenge he may still face within the GOP from Buffalo developer Carl Paladino. Although Lazio won the party convention's designation, Paladino has vowed to use up to $10 million of his own money to gather petitions to qualify to run in the Sept. 14 GOP primary.

Sources close to the Cuomo camp said that if Lazio soon gets a big fundraising boost, it likely will come from Wall Street supporters, underscoring Lazio's ties as a JPMorgan Chase executive and lobbyist for the financial services industry since leaving Congress after his 2000 Senate loss to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Cuomo plans to publicly scrutinize Lazio's record in the past decade as a leading advocate for Wall Street interests, said one aide, who declined to be named.


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