Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s schedule in Westchester County today includes appearing at the new Tappan Zee Bridge with President Obama – which is about as big time as it gets.
Republican opponent Rob Astorino will also command attention today in his home county of Westchester: He introduces Chemung County Sheriff Christopher J. Moss as his running mate. Moss is an opponent of the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, or SAFE Act, and the first African-American the GOP has ever nominated for that spot.
Still, the contrast between the stars of today’s two events only underscores the uphill struggle that New York Republicans face as they launch their two-day state convention. Even the optimism of their convention gets upstaged by the powerful incumbent governor.
Still, the ebullient and ever-optimistic State GOP Chairman Edward F. Cox is managing to convey the idea that Democrats are running scared.
Why else, he asks, would Cuomo import Obama to Westchester County on the very day the GOP convenes up the road in Rye Brook?
“Cuomo knows Rob Astorino is a real threat,” Cox told The Buffalo News. “Why on earth would he have the president of the United States come into Westchester on Wednesday?”
But Cox ranks among the few painting the Democratic incumbent as fretting about re-election. That’s because the once-competitive New York GOP finds itself without a statewide victory since 2002, watching as Democrats build an advantage of about 3 million voters.
As election season dawns, every poll shows Cuomo with commanding leads of 30 or more percentage points and $33 million in his campaign account – with more to come. The governor also boasts the advantages of incumbency – including the ability to summon the president to his pet project of building a new Tappan Zee Bridge on the GOP’s big day.
Few pitfalls await Cuomo, most observers say.
“For the governor, the good news is that he maintains a strong 35-point lead over his likely challenger, he continues to have a strong favorable rating and almost two-thirds of voters think he’s been an effective governor,” Siena Research Institute pollster Steven A. Greenberg said in March.
“The bad news for him is that his job performance rating is the lowest it’s been since November, and for the first time, only a plurality – not a majority – of voters are prepared to re-elect him.”
The negatives present a slim ray of hope for the GOP. But is it enough for Astorino and the rest of the GOP ticket to mount a giant-killer challenge?
Cox says yes, calling Astorino a “superb” candidate who twice won county executive elections in overwhelmingly Democratic Westchester. Last year, Astorino even won 25 percent of the African-American vote, buttressed by an even healthier 60 percent among Hispanics – traditional Democratic strongholds, Cox noted.
“The people of New York are going to turn around and say the same thing,” Cox said.
Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy noted that Astorino and Moss, along with the “down ballot” ticket of John P. Cahill for attorney general and Robert E. Antonacci for comptroller, are unopposed. That means little convention controversy is expected.
But such events aim to set a tone and disseminate a message, he said, and the convention at the Westchester Hilton will “showcase” the party’s candidates and cast them as “public servants, not activists.”
“Are we winning or losing?” Langworthy asked, referring to conditions in the state. “Despite all the hoopla associated with spreading money around the state, where have we structurally changed at all?”
Those are the questions that Buffalo’s Carl P. Paladino – who carried the GOP gubernatorial standard in 2010 – posed in the last election. Though he plans no speaking role at this week’s convention, will wield no particular influence, and promises to cast his proxy vote for Astorino, he is attending and is almost certain to create his own buzz.
“My mere presence will be irritating to people,” he said. “I’m OK with that.”
After all, the Buffalo real estate developer destroyed the party’s endorsed candidate in the last election (62 to 38 percent the statewide primary; 94 to 6 percent in Erie County) and still claims a loyal following among the most conservative Republicans likely to vote in a primary. He goes out of his way to claim that Cox “has never won anything.” He even encouraged the gubernatorial dalliance of party leaders such as Langworthy with billionaire Donald J. Trump earlier this year.
He likes Astorino and will support him, Paladino said. But he continues to question the candidate’s name recognition and ability to raise money.
In addition, a certain Paladino theme in hallway gatherings with reporters in Rye Brook will be his insistence that the party “clean house” by dumping legislative RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only, who voted for the SAFE Act, Cuomo’s strict gun-control law.
“I just don’t see any energy,” he said of the Astorino ticket. “Yes, you can be against the SAFE Act. But why not denounce the person who allowed the SAFE Act?
“The reality is, he’s going to need a lot of money for name recognition, and there is no fire in the belly,” Paladino added. “That’s what I showed people.”
But questions now surround the ability of the state GOP to win anything beyond local contests. George E. Pataki was the party’s last successful candidate for governor, in 2002, while Erie County’s Dennis C. Vacco scored the last Republican victory for attorney general 20 years ago. Vacco, who narrowly lost his 1998 bid for re-election to the Democratic nominee, future Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, this week pointed out the challenge faced by the GOP in a state where Democratic registration continues to surge.
Democrats outnumbered Republicans by about 1.5 million voters in 1994, he said, but the margin is about 3 million now. And while Republicans in the old days could theoretically emerge from heavily Democratic New York City with a 600,000-vote deficit and then claim upstate and the metropolitan suburbs, upstate’s population drain now presents an even greater obstacle.
“One of the challenges is just sheer math,” Vacco said. “How do you appeal to our ever-shrinking base of upstate Republicans and ‘Reagan Democrats’ at a time when the downstate Democrats consistently grow in size?”
Top Republicans, however, never concede defeat in a state where they consistently win on the local level, such as last year’s GOP victories in Erie County for Legislature, comptroller and sheriff – despite Cuomo’s heavy political and economic-development emphasis on the area.
Vacco has advised this year’s GOP candidates to avoid concentrating on downstate and instead chase upstate and suburban voters. But in the long term, he blames Pataki’s party leaders for failing to build on the successes of the 1990s, develop an effective farm system and translate local victories into statewide wins.
“There was never a substantive, coordinated effort to build on the successes of ’94,” he said. “Maybe the dynamics would be different.”
Cox remains optimistic. He calls this week’s convention “the moment I’ve been working for since way back,” four years longer than what he envisioned for 2010, the year Paladino won the primary.
“As far as candidates are concerned, we couldn’t do any better,” Cox said. “This is a moment when we can do some extraordinary things. And that’s the theme of the convention: ‘It’s our time.’ ”