ALBANY — To the blaring theme from "Rocky," former Gov. George Pataki entered the cheering state Republican convention on Monday like a 6-foot, 5-inch colossus. He embodies the pride Republicans still take in his defeat of Democratic icon Mario Cuomo in 1994 as well as the hope that the GOP can again pull off a historic political upset.
"There is very much the same sense of enthusiasm and optimism and a belief that there's a tremendous chance to win," Pataki said at the convention in Garden City.
In 1994 he was a little-known, moderate Republican senator from Peekskill, but reverence for him within the party is still so strong that on Monday, he had to dispel scuttlebutt at the convention that he would run again this year, at age 76.
"For every Republican who ever ran, he’s always the hope we have," said Marc Molinaro, a Republican candidate for the 19th Congressional District. The former Dutchess County executive was called "the next Pataki" when he was the party’s nominee for governor in 2018, before losing to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Republicans say the time is now ripe to seize the governor’s office. As in 1994, they say the economy is shaky, crime is rising, the future is bleak and New Yorkers are tired of liberal Democratic rule.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has been in office just six months and the GOP will attempt to closely link her to the three terms of Cuomo, who resigned in August as his popularity was plummeting amid sexual harassment accusations.
This year, unlike 1994, Republicans are also buoyed by several upset wins in legislative and local races in 2021, including high-profile races on Long Island, and may be able to take advantage of a general decline in trust in government and the current all-Democratic control of Albany, political scientists said.
On Tuesday, Republicans named Rep. Lee Zeldin of Shirley the party's designee for governor with more than 85% of the weighted vote. With that choice, the party tapped the candidate most closely aligned with former President Donald Trump and his fervent but small base of voters in a state where Trump is highly unpopular.
Two other more moderate candidates, financier Harry Wilson and former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, vow to force a June primary. They say they are counting on winning the nomination when rank-and-file Republicans decide the nomination and choose someone with a better chance of winning in November.
The Republican nominee will face the winner of a likely Democratic primary in June among Hochul, Rep. Tom Suozzi of Glen Cove, and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn.
"In 1994, George Pataki understood that New Yorkers were fed up with high crime and government overreach," said Susan Del Percio, a national political commentator who worked in New York Republican politics. "He was a center-right candidate that offered common-sense solutions and not more big government. He was relatable and not a fire-thrower, and most of all the Republican Party got behind the Republican that could win, even though he wasn’t the most conservative or most well-known.
"It was hard and almost unimaginable then," Del Percio said. "It will be harder today — but it can happen."
Republicans face a harsher political reality now compared with 28 years ago. The state is flush with federal COVID-19 pandemic aid and an economic rebound, rather than mired in fiscal crisis as in 1994. Democrats now have a much bigger advantage in voters, more than 2:1 and today’s hardened partisanship makes crossover votes from Democrats less likely, political scientists said.
Pataki was able to seize the "anybody-but-Cuomo" sentiment after three terms of Gov. Mario Cuomo, while Pataki’s environmental record lured cross-party voters. Pataki also had a Republican majority in the Senate and the tutelage of two powerful figures: State Republican Party chairman Bill Powers and U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato of Island Park.
"At this time, Hochul appears to have solid statewide party and public support," said Meena Bose, a political-science professor at Hofstra University. "None of the Republican candidates has high statewide name recognition, and the visibility of incumbency for the new governor combined with unified party control in Albany both favor a Democratic victory.
"That said, disappointing economic and pandemic conditions in the fall could spark voter opposition to current leadership," she said.
Doug Muzzio, a political-science professor at Baruch College, said Pataki’s rousing appearance on Monday was fueled more by nostalgia than reality.
"It’s like Lawrence Taylor appearing before Giants’ fans. They go crazy," said Muzzio, referring to the Hall-of-Fame linebacker.
"The polarization that exists now has a far different impact than any divisions you had then," Muzzio said, noting it's far less likely for Democrats to vote Republican now compared with 1994 because of the current hyper-partisanship of politics.
Muzzio said Hochul has so far "run a masterful campaign and has been ubiquitous throughout the state" along with attracting far more campaign contributions than her Republican rivals combined.
"Now, you would think it’s a shoo-in," Muzzio said. "And I think the odds are substantial she is going to win, but it’s not a sure thing."
Muzzio said that if Democrats take the race lightly, they could be upended the way Hillary Clinton was in 2016 against Trump. He also noted the beginning of a trend of Latinos and some Asian and European immigrants moving to suburbs and voting Republican.
Pataki raised similar issues. In his brief 2016 presidential campaign, Pataki said Trump was "divisive" and "unfit to be president." On Monday, Pataki said the Republican Party must grow its appeal beyond doormen buildings and gated suburbs.
"Our policies are right, not just for Republicans or just for the middle class or white or rural people," Pataki said. "Urban Americans, Latinos, African Americans — they are the ones who are most suffering from these failed policies."
Republicans agreed and called their ticket of designees the most diverse they ever fielded. For attorney general, they chose Paul Rodriguez who was raised in Puerto Rico; for U.S. Senate they chose Joe Pinion, a Black attorney; and they chose a woman, Alison Esposito, for lieutenant governor.
Republicans also pledged to seek Latinos and European immigrants especially those from repressive regimes, such as Cuba or Albania’s past communist system.
"It’s hard to say how immigrant groups will respond, but calls for making individual paths to success more feasible likely will resonate well, and are consistent with the traditional American dream," Bose said.
The effort is critical if Republicans are to have relevance in coming years, said Gerald Benjamin, retired distinguished professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
"Long-term trends are likely to assure that the problem gets bigger as time passes, especially since the GOP is hunkering down around its core, not reaching out," Benjamin said. "Geographic groups inclined toward the GOP are dying or moving away and being replaced by those in far more diverse, relatively newly arrived groups."
Traditionally, Republicans win the party primary with their conservative views, but are then doomed in a general election among swing voters, Benjamin said.
"This is not impossible," he said of a Republican win for governor. He noted Hochul, if she secures the nomination in June’s Democratic primary, may still face primary foe Williams in November on the Working Families Party line, who could cut into the Democratic vote for Hochul.
Further, Benjamin said a Republican in New York could benefit from a weakened or stalled administration of Democratic President Joe Biden. And if the country faces rampant inflation in the fall, "GOP chances are vastly enhanced."
"Our politics are critical," Pataki told the cheering crowd Monday. "This is about saving New York State and giving everyone a bright future."