It's not easy being a New York Republican. It's a little like rooting for the visiting team from the dugout of a dynasty.
In New York State, Republicans comprise less than a quarter of total registered voters. Democrats outnumber them 2-to-1 -- around 5.7 million to 2.8 million. And unaffiliated voters, or "blanks" as they're known, exceed 2.3 million, almost on par with the GOP.
But Republicans typically have two things going for them, especially in areas of the state where they're rarest. They tend to stick together like impalas in leopard country. And they're the traditional fallback party for when the Democrats fail, when they grow too corrupt, too cocky or too incompetent. Republicans have largely delivered as reformers when that happens -- think Rudy Giuliani -- something in which New York Republicans have always taken pride.
The one historic stronghold for Republicans has been the State Senate, which has been almost exclusively GOP-controlled for 75 years, though by ever-dwindling majorities and increasingly artistic redistricting. The Long Island- and upstate-based Senate is the bedrock of New York's Republican Party, and as such, it has an outsized role in forming the party's identity.
New York Republicans unsurprisingly view themselves as the "good guys." Democrats assuredly think they are, too. But it's hard to overstate the importance of perceived moral authority to those of us in the stark political minority. We see it as our brand, and we expect the Republican-led Senate to be its erstwhile conservator.
It's no surprise then that rank-and-file Republicans around the state are growing increasingly frustrated with a GOP Senate leadership that they see as failing to live up to basic party principles, even basic ethical principles. Republicans believe that their philosophical tenets -- low taxes, free enterprise, local rather than central control and personal responsibility -- are the solution to New York's challenges. But they don't see the Senate leadership advancing their agenda. They see it going along to get along in a deeply tainted system.
Rank-and-file Republicans want clear differentiation between the parties. What they're seeing instead is an ideologically amorphous cabal running state government, with Republicans paying lip service to conservative principles while taking care of the cabal's interests.
Nowhere was that more bracingly clear than in the scandal three years ago that wobbled then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat. Silver, the archetypal Albany dealmaker and the nemesis of Republican legislation, was caught paying off victims of sex abuse perpetrated by some Democrats. It was an opportunity for Republicans to seize the mantle of reform. It was a chance to take Silver out as speaker.
Instead, the Republican Senate largely said nothing. It let Silver stabilize and survive the scandal. The amorphous cabal superseded justice and reform.
That was a breathtaking realization for many Republicans who had toiled loyally in the trenches, some for decades. It made them question whether their years of effort had been for naught and whether the Republicans in Albany were the good guys after all.
That fissure, which began with the Silver affair, has widened over the past few years, as it's become increasingly obvious that Albany looks out for its own first, regardless of party. When Silver was arrested this year on separate corruption charges, the Senate leadership largely stayed quiet, again.
Now, the Republican Senate leader himself, Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre, has been charged with six criminal counts, and he is refusing to step aside as leader. The ever-loyal Republican conference is circling its wagons around him.
In doing so, it is showing its fidelity to an Albany culture gone mad, not to a party that used to stand for something.