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The eternal optimism of GOP Chairman Ed Cox

When Chairman Ed Cox gaveled to a close the meeting of his state GOP committee last week, it marked the end of some past history and the beginning of New York’s presidential election year.

The state’s top Republican leader since 2009, Cox had just fended off a semi-challenge from Onondaga County GOP Chairman Tom Dadey that clearly fizzled. Dadey, nevertheless, represented a group of upstate conservatives grumbling for years about the lack of statewide success.

And why not? No Republican has won statewide office since George Pataki gained his third and last term in 2002.

Cox nipped that minor revolt in the bud when no other county organizations – especially those from Erie and Long Island – joined the effort. Now the chairman will oversee the unenviable task of finding another sacrificial lamb – er, candidate – to face Sen. Chuck Schumer next year.

But Cox remains excited about what lies ahead. For the first time in memory, he envisions a meaningful role for New York in next year’s presidential election.

“New York can be consequential for the first time in many elections in deciding the next president of the United States,” he declared a few days ago during a visit with the Politics Column at The Buffalo News.

That’s almost uncharted territory for the Empire State, despite its huge population, trove of electoral votes and money and influence flowing from New York City. Because of the traditional late date on the primary calendar (next year on April 19), big and powerful New York usually gets left in the wake of places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

New York’s primary always arrives just as a winner emerges. Think national afterthought. Think Newt Gingrich at an Ellicott Square news conference during the state’s 2012 primary. Hardly anybody cared. Mitt Romney was all but nominated.

The chairman sees a 2016 scenario, however, in which New York emerges as the big prize in a spate of primaries between March 15 and April 26 that includes Wisconsin, Kentucky, Utah and Arizona.

“We really have about five weeks where we’re the big primary state,” he said. “Our 95 delegates will be up for grabs.”

Cox could be onto something, though some accuse him of overselling the idea of New York relevance in 2016. At last count the GOP presidential field still sports 15 candidates (though the day is young). And outsiders like Donald Trump show anything can happen.

So if even half the field survives the early tests, the nomination could still be in play come April 19. For the first time since Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley slugged it out in 2000, the local airwaves might just be filled with ads for presidential candidates.

The remaining GOP candidates will seek out county chairmen and party activists for their all-important help. And cities like Buffalo could loom as more than just places to raise money. “I expect maybe three or four to survive after March 15,” Cox said. “We’ll be the momentum builder after April 19.”

In the meantime, Cox is not ignoring his own backyard. He likes the GOP’s local successes, and the state’s congressional delegation has swelled from two to nine on his watch. But a victory for governor, comptroller, attorney general or senator tops lots of Republican wish lists.

That’s why it was interesting that Cox appeared at last week’s Amherst GOP Dinner with Congressman Chris Gibson of the Hudson Valley, who for some reason (running for governor in 2018 perhaps?) likes to visit Erie County. Gibson is eyeing the governor’s post, while 2014 candidate Rob Astorino – the Westchester County executive – also appears ready for a rematch.

Add former EnCon Commissioner John Cahill to the list. And we’ll mention here for the first time Harry Wilson, the Wall Street financier and 2010 GOP candidate for comptroller. It was no coincidence that Wilson found himself visiting Erie County back in July.

All of this makes Cox the eternal optimist. And these days in Democratic New York, eternal optimism ranks as the No. 1 job requirement for the state Republican chairman.