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Rep. Gibson takes up GOP challenge

The Politics Column has chronicled campaigns and elections around these parts long enough to carve out a few favorite topics by now, and one of them remains the future of New York’s Republican Party.

Once home to the moderate GOP of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (no, we don’t go back that far), New York Republicans for many years not only thrived but prospered. Think Comptroller Ned Regan, Sen. Al D’Amato, Gov. George Pataki and Attorney General Dennis Vacco – not to mention a Republican Senate that still reigns in Albany, if only barely.

But no Republican has won statewide since Pataki’s last victory in 2002, and the future looks bleak with registration trends favoring Democrats over Republicans by a substantial tally.

None of this dampens the optimism of GOP stalwarts like state Chairman Ed Cox, who has worked hard to find a winning combination for several years now, but without statewide success.

Enter Congressman Chris Gibson of Kinderhook, who hopes to rekindle the same magic of the Columbia County town that produced President Martin Van Buren in 1837 (a Democrat, for those keeping score at home). The congressman breezed through our town last week in what could only be labeled an “exploratory trip” for whatever lies ahead.

Elected to his lower Hudson Valley seat in 2010, Gibson knocked off a Democratic incumbent and has proven a prolific vote getter throughout his congressional career. Still, he announced just after his third victory in 2014 that he would retire at the end of this two-year term, honoring his term limit commitment.

That means Gibson is planning for 2018 (most observers believe governor). And though that seems far off on the horizon, it’s exactly the point of the congressman’s 2015 visits to new turf like Buffalo.

“You’ve got to start early,” he said in Erie County Republican Headquarters a few days ago. “We’re going to be outspent in 2018, but that doesn’t mean we can’t win and win decisively.”

Gibson is already gaining the attention of GOP leaders who like his impressive resume: Army colonel, combat veteran of Iraq, four Bronze Stars, Purple Heart, bachelor’s from Siena, two master’s and a Ph.D. from Cornell (along with more but we’ll quit here).

He looks and speaks military, refers often to his Iraq experiences in hot spots like Tal Afar and lays out a very Republican philosophy based on lower taxes and a less-stringent regulatory environment that he says will revitalize a long-dormant upstate.

“The economy is the number one issue, and it’s not complicated,” he said. “We have to look at spending, and have more broad-based tax cuts, particularly for small business. And we have to change the underlying environment with regard to regulatory relief, health care costs and access to credit.”

Gibson likes what Gov. Andrew Cuomo has started with programs like the Buffalo Billion. He does not like Cuomo’s approach to education (“we want common sense, not common core”), or the governor’s style of “intimidation and fear” that he says has alienated the voters who fueled his sky-high ratings of 2011.

“A successful infantry leader doesn’t order ‘Take that hill,’ ” he said, again recalling his Army days. “A successful leader says, ‘Follow me.’ That’s not happening.”

It’s not really all that different from Rob Astorino’s candidacy for governor. And it’s not all that different from a host of other GOP statewide hopefuls who preach a lower tax, less regulation message and still get creamed. Why, Congressman Gibson, would you prove any different?

Maybe, he says, because he will help the Cox organization over the next three years find the right candidates, school them on issues, prepare them for debates and raise money for them.

“The party has to inspire people,” he said, “and give them a reason to come out and vote.”

It’s a tough challenge that others have never successfully tackled. But Gibson is already at work, and discovering that making the New York GOP again relevant may prove as difficult as anything he faced in Tal Afar.