WASHINGTON — Twenty-seven years ago, a little-known state senator from Peekskill named George Pataki upset Gov. Mario Cuomo’s bid for a fourth term and went on to win three terms himself before stepping down as the last statewide elected Republican in New York.
Republicans have since failed to replicate Pataki’s success as their share of registered voters has shrunk by a third. But now many Republicans say the time may be ripe for another upset victory with controversies engulfing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his party’s leftward drift.
Rep. Lee Zeldin of Shirley said he feels so strongly about the chances of a Republican victory that he put his four-term congressional career on the line last week by declaring he’s running for governor when the office is up for election next year.
But with the election more than a year and a half away, and Cuomo under investigation for alleged sexual harassment and his handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes, many questions remain about what the shape of politics and who the candidates will be then, political analysts, consultants and former officeholders said.
"You can only plan the best you can, but you know you need a crystal ball to know what the political ground is going to look like in November of 2022," said Long Island pollster and political consultant Mike Dawidziak, who works mainly with Republicans.
Democrats downplay the threat to their hold on the state’s top job despite Cuomo’s woes, citing his past two blowout elections over Republicans.
Democrats still occupy all statewide offices and control the State Legislature. Half of the state’s voters are registered Democrats. Voters who don’t identify with any party now outnumber Republicans.
Meanwhile, the Republican and Conservative parties are in the minority in their opposition to gay marriage, gun control and abortion rights — every governor of either party has been pro-abortion rights since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
Those factors would make the Democratic candidate the favorite, even if it is someone other than Cuomo. And Cuomo, should he decide to run, has $16.8 million in his campaign account, giving him a significant head start over other potential candidates just getting into the race.
In addition, Republicans must show some support for former President Donald Trump, who lost by 2 million votes in New York State in 2020, but doing so could fire up the turnout of Democrats still angry at Trump for, among other things, denying he lost the 2020 election.
But analysts and consultants acknowledge that there’s a chance, however slim it looks now to some of them, that Cuomo or another Democrat could lose next year if the party splits behind left and moderate candidates or if Democrats become disenchanted and don’t vote.
"Anybody who went through the Pataki-Cuomo race in 1994 and felt that the Republicans had no chance can’t help but being very cautious in saying that it's impossible," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies.
"But New York State is very different from what it was 27 years ago," Levy said.
Pataki defeated Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994 with 48% of the vote during a national Republican wave election and with a massive turnout in upstate New York, a solid Long Island vote and tepid support among Democrats who had become weary of Cuomo.
Republicans back then had a stronger party, led by Sen. Al D’Amato and state party chairman Bill Powers. They chose the moderate, pro-abortion rights, anti-tax Pataki and ran what Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf called "an extraordinary campaign."
New York State Republican Committee chairman Nick Langworthy, a Trump ally, aims to rebuild his party by getting a head start on next year’s election with an in-person Albany meeting Monday of his party’s 62 county chairs with potential candidates making presentations.
In a phone interview, Pataki, who at age 75 said he’s not open to a draft, sounded upbeat about Republicans’ chances in next year’s race. "There is a very, very real opportunity with the right candidate to win the governorship," he said.
Still, the question remains: What is the Republican path to victory and who is the candidate who should travel it?
"It’s very much like the Pataki scenario," said Sheinkopf. That’s a view echoed by WABC Radio guest co-host and former Republican congressman Peter King, Dawidziak — and Pataki himself.
Pataki acknowledged that politics have changed since his first run in 1994. The state is more ethnically diverse, there’s a completely different sense of media and, he said, "You need more Democratic votes now than you did my first time when I ran."
But the formula is similar, he said. "You need to get the vast majority of the Republican conservative votes, and you need to get a million and a half or 2 million votes from Democrats," Pataki said. "That's a hard task to accomplish, but it's doable."
Gerald Benjamin, a retired SUNY New Paltz political science professor, said he could think of only one scenario for a Republican to win the governor’s seat: a unified state Republican Party with a moderate, pro-choice candidate and a fractured Democratic Party pitting a left-leaning Working Families Party candidate against Cuomo.
"So now you have a right Democrat who's scarred or damaged and a left Democrat who's massively anti-Cuomo and you have a Republican who could be center right — and you have a three-way race that [a Republican] could win with 40% to 45% of the vote," Benjamin said.
Both parties are wrestling with the question of who can win in the governor’s race.
On the Democratic side, Cuomo appears to be sliding in the polls.
"Governor Cuomo has been greatly hurt and diminished, so were he to run he's perceived in both parties I think as vulnerable," said Pataki. Dawidziak said he doubts Cuomo could survive a Democratic primary.
Benjamin said, "I think that the analysis has to consider whether the governor will run for reelection, which I'm sure he will if he can survive this crisis he's in the midst of, which makes it increasingly unlikely in my opinion, although not impossible."
Cuomo could emerge stronger if he does survive, Benjamin acknowledged.
Names being mentioned as replacements for Cuomo at the head of the Democratic ticket include Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Attorney General Letitia James, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) has said he'd like to be governor.
While King and Pataki said none of them has "star appeal," most have won a statewide election or have some name recognition.
Langworthy said he hopes to have a Republican candidate for governor and a statewide slate agreed to by his committee chairs at the end of the third quarter of this year — which Pataki said is too early since it could sideline potential candidates who might otherwise emerge.
Republicans have mounted a campaign that blames Democrats for raising taxes, rising crime and fleeing New Yorkers, and look to the business community for financial support.
Zeldin, a staunch Trump ally, already has jumped into the race backed by the two most powerful Republican county chairmen in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
But Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro and former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino — who lost to Cuomo in the 2018 and 2014 elections — and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville), another Trump ally, have expressed interest.
A big question is: Can a Republican closely associated with Trump win?
Sheinkopf, Levy and Benjamin said they don’t believe a Trump Republican can win, but King and Dawidziak dismissed that concern.
Asked what kind of Republican can win, Pataki sounded as if he were describing himself when he ran: someone who Republicans, conservatives and independents can get excited about and who Democrats can say they see themselves voting for.
But the candidate cannot turn his or her back on Trump, King said.
"It's hard to win a primary unless you're at least reasonably supportive of Trump," King said. "Hopefully between now and the fall of 2022 that will have subsided a bit, that it'll be in the rearview mirror."
Benjamin said in his scenario that’s a real problem.
"They have to win in the suburbs, and they have to minimize the Democratic vote in the city and they have to get a heavy vote upstate," said Benjamin. "It may be that there is an anti-Cuomo vote that Republicans may capture, but not with a Trump Republican."
Memories do fade over time, as King and Dawidziak argued. But history shows that political opponents don’t hesitate to remind voters of their competitors’ sore spots.
And if Zeldin or Stefanik gets the nod, Democrats or their allies could well run a TV or digital ad with a graphic video of Trump supporters’ attacking the Capitol and Zeldin or Stefanik’s vote on the House floor objecting to President Joe Biden’s certified electoral victory.