There was a time when Buffalo Republicans at least fantasized about electing one of their own as mayor.
Candidates such as Richard A. Grimm III and Kevin J. Helfer would raise money, campaign on the issues, and haunt the heavily favored Democratic candidates.
But in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 7 to 1, those days appear to be over. No Republican has even hinted at launching a campaign this mayoral election year, leaving the September Democratic primary as the political contest again determining the occupant of the big office on City Hall’s second floor.
“We really have until July to be final,”Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said. “But at this point, there is no active candidate.”
Even the staunchest Republicans, he noted, express no interest in devoting an entire summer and fall of campaigning in a doomed effort.
There also is the strategic consideration that running a GOP candidate for mayor could boost Democratic turnout in the city, thus undermining Republicans' efforts in countywide races. Langworthy doesn't deny that strategy but he also says Democrats play the same game in suburban communities.
While incumbent Byron W. Brown will face Mark J.F. Schroeder and Betty Jean Grant in the Democratic primary on Sept. 12, this year will mark the second general election in the last three cycles that the GOP mayoral line will remain blank. Election 2009 marked the first general election since before the Civil War when Buffalo Republicans offered no candidate.
That’s because even Republicans who wage professional campaigns in recent years get annihilated.
Grimm, an attorney who faced Democrat Anthony M. Masiello in 1993, knows all about the difficulties facing Republican mayoral candidates. He said he ran as a “29-year-old rookie” because nobody else wanted to do it.
“It’s unfortunate, but I can understand why people are discouraged from running,” he said.
Grimm gained only 18 percent of the vote in 1993, compared to 68 percent for Masiello and 14 percent for Conservative nominee Eugene M. Fahey. Grimm said that starting as an underfunded underdog makes it difficult to mount any kind of credible campaign. The city’s overwhelming Democratic structure discourages even a weak Republican effort, he said, because party members are so few and far between.
“During the campaign, I talked to like minded people who told me they became Democrats so they could vote in the primary, where the election is effectively decided,” Grimm said.
Helfer also ran an organized -- and well-funded -- campaign against Brown in 2005, but his bid will most likely go down in history as the last serious Republican effort in Buffalo. He lost 64 to 27 percent.
The party reluctantly endorsed Sergio R. Rodriguez when he surfaced out of nowhere to challenge Brown in 2013, but many party insiders resisted his effort.
Beyond the lopsided party enrollment numbers in the city, another unspoken political fact of life remains: A heavy turnout for a contested mayoral general election in overwhelmingly Democratic Buffalo does nothing to advance GOP prospects for countywide offices like clerk, comptroller and sheriff.
Though Democrat Masiello gained GOP support in 1997 and 2001, Republican chairman Langworthy said there has been no discussion of a similar arrangement in 2017 with any Democrat.
“They’re not asking and we’re not offering,” he said. “We’re in a different place now in where the two parties are in state and national politics.”
And while Langworthy does not dispute the GOP’s benefits from the lack of a November contest in the city, he maintains the strategy is not limited to his party. Democrats in several suburban towns have increasingly failed to field candidates.
“I’d say they’re trying to suppress Republican turnout,” he said.
Langworthy added that it is possible the city GOP will field a “placeholder” candidate uncommitted to a serious campaign to prevent someone from “playing games” with the party line.