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Overshadowed by Trump’s insurgency, state Republicans are at a crossroads

New York Republicans are in Buffalo today for their state convention. In the hometown of their failed 2010 gubernatorial candidate, Carl Paladino, who is trying to drive the party ever further to the right, it’s a good time and place to ask a fundamental question: Who are we?

It’s a serious issue in a left-leaning state, where Democrats have a 3-to-1 registration advantage and whose ranks are growing. The point of politics is to offer voters a choice, of course, but the choice has to be plausible and attached, in some way, to reality.

Paladino’s candidacy six years ago wasn’t. His angry-man campaign easily brushed off Rick Lazio in the Republican primary but he was wiped out in the general election, winning just 33 percent of the vote.

This year, surveying Donald Trump’s success in the Republican presidential primaries, Paladino is talking about running for governor again in two years, but there is ample reason to believe he is mistaking the noise from his own echo chamber for statewide support.

He might do better than last time running against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who would be seeking a third term, but the odds are against Paladino.

So who do Republicans want to be? It seems impossible, and unwise, for the party to become what it was when Nelson Rockefeller was the state’s Republican governor. Rockefeller, who won a record four terms as New York’s chief executive, would have been comfortable as a Democrat, dramatically expanding the state university system, signing the nation’s first abortion rights bill and creating the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Those remain largely popular decisions, but if both parties have the same approach, voters have less of a choice. A more conservative Republican Party might have helped stave off New York’s status as the nation’s highest-taxed state, for example. But what is conservative or, to put it in terms Paladino uses, who are the RINOs – the Republicans in name only?

Do you have to be angry, unwilling to compromise and abusive of your adversaries to be a real Republican? Or are the people who demand that standard – people like Trump and Paladino – dragging the party to a place where it can’t win in New York? Only one Republican, George Pataki, has occupied the governor’s office since Rockefeller’s departure in 1974, and he was a moderate.

The question replicates itself nationally, as well, as Trump – a Republican in name only, if ever there was one – wins votes by hurling invective at his opponents, threatening critics and promising to do things that, at one time, Americans would have found repugnant.

Whether he, too, is operating in an echo chamber won’t be known for months yet, but it is interesting to observe that the party is morphing into something Lincoln wouldn’t recognize just as its ability to cope with demographic change jeopardizes its long-term electoral prospects. The choleric politics of some members smacks of the anger of those who are losing control and don’t know how to adapt.

Democrats had their own period when they moved too far to the left to win national elections. The imperatives of politics and the two-party system eventually dragged them back to the political center. It’s part of the push and pull that has kept the country more or less on course – with notable exceptions – for 240 years.

Republicans risk becoming irrelevant, to their detriment and the country’s, if their current march to the right isn’t also corrected by a general electorate that demands more than sulfur and demons from its leaders.