Rare GOP unity spurs Astorino’s challenge to Cuomo - The Buffalo News

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Rare GOP unity spurs Astorino’s challenge to Cuomo

RYE BROOK – Rob Astorino accepted the Republican nomination for governor Thursday and left his convention with unusual ammunition: GOP unity.

There will be no ugly party primary and no expenditure of funds to attack other Republicans. Instead, Astorino now focuses his energies and that of his party on the uphill task of trying to oust popular incumbent Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

That is unlike the nasty intraparty battles that followed GOP conventions in 1994, 2006 and, most recently, 2010, when Buffalo’s Carl P. Paladino defeated the party’s leaders’ choice for governor in a heated primary.

Astorino displayed a heightened level of confidence in his acceptance speech Thursday, undaunted by the challenges of party registration imbalance and lack of money, not to mention Cuomo’s advantages of incumbency and strong poll ratings.

“This state will come back if we make the right choices,” Astorino said, lamenting the state’s poor showing, compared with other states, in everything from population loss to the level of taxation.

For parents upset by the Common Core program, Astorino pledged to modify it and have it run by local, not Albany, interests. For conservatives, he said his administration would repeal Cuomo’s gun-control law, the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act.

And for some upstate residents hopeful of its economic benefits, he vowed to permit drilling for natural gas – hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – that Cuomo has blocked.

While few political pundits predict success for the GOP nominee at this early point, the Westchester County executive told a cheering convention audience that he can win in November because he has already been successful on overwhelmingly Democratic turf.

He also believes that the Cuomo administration has given him plenty to talk about on the campaign trail.

“Beneath the suffocating wet blanket of state government, we’re still New Yorkers,” Astorino said. “We’re the risk-takers and the job-makers – remember that? Give us a chance to breathe again, and we’ll thrive.”

He emphasized two major themes:

First, he blamed a litany of state problems on Cuomo, ranging from the state’s poor job-creation ratings, to excessive mandates on local governments, to upstate population loss, calling it “nothing less than a disgrace, a crime of historic magnitude.”

“Our leaders have squandered a land blessed by its Creator, and that’s unforgivable,” he said. “You and I need to fix it because there’s no one else coming along.”

Astorino then recited a long list of what he considers accomplishments as leader of one of the state’s biggest counties. He pointed to reductions in the cost of county government, a freeze on tax rates, a smaller budget than when he took office five years ago, low unemployment and the state’s highest credit rating.

“If Gov. Cuomo had adhered to the same level of restraint that we did in Westchester over the past four years, the cumulative savings to New York’s taxpayers would be a staggering $46.5 billion,” he said. “You can start a lot of small businesses with that. You can create a lot of jobs. You can lower taxes.”

Astorino’s designation – effectively guaranteeing nomination with no primary on the horizon – followed Thursday’s nomination of Chemung County Sheriff Christopher J. Moss as the party’s candidate for lieutenant governor and Wednesday’s designation of Robert E. Antonacci of Onondaga County for state comptroller, along with John P. Cahill of Westchester County for attorney general.

Astorino’s candidacy was offered to the convention by Rep. Chris Collins, of Clarence, and he was introduced as the nominee by Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, also of Clarence. Just before Astorino spoke, GOP convention managers played a lively video that included Cuomo’s now-famous comments that “extreme conservatives” have “no place in New York.”

As part of a carefully scripted event, the video did what it was designed to do – elicit a roaring response from the crowd and an expected major campaign theme – party unity.

In 1994, it took a last-minute deal at a hotel in Manhattan – with delegates floors below – to give Herbert London the nomination for comptroller, instead of John Faso, to ensure that London would not challenge eventual Gov. George E. Pataki in a gubernatorial primary.

In 2006, a bitter convention battle between William F. Weld and Faso occurred, with Faso going on to get the nomination and lose in the fall to Eliot L. Spitzer.

And just four years ago, there was the fight for the nomination between Rick Lazio and Paladino, which ended up with Paladino winning in a primary and losing to Cuomo, who was able to score points with moderate Republicans.

This time, it was different for the Republicans.

“Clearly, there is unity,” Faso said. “There’s not going to be a primary, and that’s always good because it gives the whole summer to focus on the general election.”

Faso said part of the credit goes to Astorino.

“Rob Astorino was able to galvanize support … and, frankly, he’s the best Republican candidate for governor since George Pataki in 1994.

Democrats acknowledged the GOP togetherness.

“They appear to be speaking in one language,” said Hank Sheinkopf, of Manhattan, a Democratic consultant who is an adviser to Cuomo’s campaign.

The unity is significant, he said, “but less significant than people might think” because of Cuomo’s popularity in the polls and the 2-to-1 Democratic voter enrollment advantage over Republicans.

Republican consultant Jack Cookfair said Astorino and the rest of the statewide Republicans emerged Thursday without having to spend money in primaries “and without having to take positions that might not be the position you want to take in a general election.” That often comes with Republicans trying to appeal to conservatives in the party in a state where the November election draws more moderate voters across party lines.

“It certainly can’t be bad,” Cookfair said of the GOP unity.

Meeting with reporters right after his acceptance speech, Astorino said he expects Cuomo to challenge many of his claims of state deficiencies as part of a “spin” campaign. He also labeled as “unsustainable” such programs as Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion, which the incumbent governor regularly uses to announce new economic development.

“It’s not the renaissance; it’s not what’s going to bring the state back – just throwing around tax dollars,” Astorino said.

Astorino acknowledged that he cannot match Cuomo’s campaign funds of more than $30 million (with more to come) but that his own campaign will have “enough to get our message out.”

Running mate Moss, an African-American who brings a racial balance to the GOP ticket that the yet-to-be-completed Democratic ticket presently lacks, also met with reporters after his speech. But when asked about the scarcity of black Republicans in New York, he dismissed any idea that his race played a role in his selection as Astorino’s running mate.

“I wasn’t put on this ticket simply for my color,” he said. “I feel I’m qualified for the position … in my education and in my experience. It’s really not a concern.”

Earlier, in his speech to the convention, Moss gave a possible glimpse into his campaign role as potential upstate advocate as he lamented the economic conditions of cities such as his hometown of Elmira. He also displayed a bit of the traditional “attack dog” role of the lieutenant governor as he lambasted Cuomo and his sponsorship of the SAFE Act.

“And the man who pledged to be the most transparent governor in history?” he asked. “He enacted laws in the dead of the night infringing on our constitutional rights. Take it from a guy who has spent his life in law enforcement: The SAFE Act does not make us safe.”

Astorino is expected to campaign today in Schenectady and Rochester before appearing Saturday in Buffalo.

News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this report. email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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