Depending on which data you focus on, the New York State Republican Party is either on its deathbed or set for a massive recovery.
The party last won a statewide election 14 years ago, with George Pataki’s third term as governor. Since then, a slate of candidates from the undeniably accomplished to the hopelessly gullible have lost in race after race for U.S. Senate, governor, attorney general and comptroller. And the party is having an increasingly hard time recruiting viable candidates.
Wendy Long, who addressed the New York GOP delegation breakfast at the Republican National Convention yesterday, could be seen as evidence of that inability. Crushed by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand by a staggering 46-point margin in 2012, Long will take on Democrat Chuck Schumer with the Republican, Reform and Conservative Party ballot lines in November. Schumer, who is seeking his fourth term, will likely be the Senate Democratic leader in the next Congress; has millions of dollars in his campaign coffers; and can get as much more as he needs.
Candidates have to act as if they think they can win. So when Long said in an interview that she and state Conservative Party leader Mike Long (no relation) had agreed the run would, if nothing else, let her travel the state talking up conservative principles, that was rare honesty from a political candidate. So was her admission of her fundraising goals, six figures, against the $26 million Schumer’s campaign had on hand in April.
So you could call this GOP chapter a dead party walking — except for a few upbeat signs.
In the GOP state primary in April — Donald Trump got 60 percent of the vote — turnout was more than four times as high as in 2012. And at the 2016 GOP convention, according to Tony Casale, a senior adviser to state party chairman Ed Cox, the party has its biggest contingent, with more than 500 attendees from New York, and plenty more who wanted to come who the party couldn’t accommodate. Cox says attendees, many of them new, remind him of the excited Republicans of 35 years ago.
There is one way in which the state GOP’s chances at a vibrant future in the biggest races mirror the national party’s: It has to be built on the kind of voters who carried states like New York for Ronald Reagan — conservative, hardworking white men and women who don’t relate to the liberal Democratic worldview.
The GOP brand had turned into one of big business, catering to the tax needs of wealthy members and free-trade agreements that cost America jobs. New York has traditionally been a center of that country-club brand of Republicanism. But middle-class voters want to know how the GOP will take care of them. Trump has addressed their needs with promises of trade protection and a well-maintained social safety net. To be successful, so must the New York GOP.
But that still won’t be enough. Changing demographics mean that a party without significant minority support cannot succeed.
Cox, to his credit, seems to know that, and says he’s using new data to target traditional Democrats, particularly in New York City, who can be swayed to the GOP side on issues like school choice and charters.
None of these plans to reinvigorate the New York GOP will work quickly, but hopefully they will work. Our politics are ugly even with two parties trying to keep each other in check. Imagine how much worse it would be, particularly in New York, with just one running amok.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.