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It’s a long way off, but GOP hopefuls eye governor’s race

ALBANY – Something bizarre is happening in New York politics: Republicans, a bunch of them, are jockeying to run for governor.

And they are doing so more than two years before the race will commence.

It is remarkably early for talk, much less a news article, about a campaign not happening until 2018. Yet a handful of Republicans who believe that an early start can position them to take on Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo already are talking about a run, including two former Cuomo opponents. They include:

• Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who has never stopped running for a second chance after putting up very respectable numbers two years ago.

• Buffalo real estate developer Carl P. Paladino, a Buffalo School Board member, who is encouraged by what he sees on the national stage and says New Yorkers may be ready for his blunt talk.

• Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro, who has been talking himself up with GOP leaders across the state, including Western New York.

• Harry J. Wilson, who nearly defeated Thomas P. DiNapoli for state comptroller in 2010, despite being a political newcomer, and has been offering talking points such as his own wealth and financial background restructuring major corporations.

• Chris Gibson, a three-term congressman from Columbia County and a retired Army colonel, who last week created a gubernatorial exploratory committee, a route that permits him to start raising money for a 2018 bid.

This is a far cry from the days of GOP leaders practically pleading with someone to run for governor in a state with such lopsided party enrollments.

“There’s been a time when our party has had difficulty in fielding statewide quality candidates. This shows there’s a real interest in running, and a vibrancy in our party we’ve not seen in a while,” said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy.

The potential candidates know that getting elected is a formidable task in a state where there are 5.8 million registered Democrats and 2.7 million Republicans.

Plus there is Cuomo’s campaign chest: $16 million already in the bank.

And Cuomo has been courting Democratic-rich New York City recently with his increasing liberal turns on an array of fiscal and social issues.

“This climb is actually steeper and the path more narrow than in 1994,” Gibson acknowledged, referring to when little-known State Sen. George E. Pataki upset three-term Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, father of the current governor. “Still, I’m optimistic. But you have to respect the challenge. The governor will likely raise and spend in excess of $50 million. If we can raise $20 million, I believe we can win.”

That confidence is rooted in the belief that Cuomo has suffered political wounds after 10 years in office and that by 2018, voters will have Cuomo fatigue, Gibson and others Republicans say.

Republicans note that Cuomo’s 54 percent showing against Astorino in 2014 was not impressive. Cuomo fared poorly through most of upstate but was re-elected by the strength of votes from New York City,

They also cite his continuing high negative job-approval rating, which stood at 58 percent in a recent Siena Research Institute poll.

So if Maryland and Massachusetts, two traditional blue states, elected Republican governors in 2014, why not New York?

Gibson is the furthest along among the potential GOP candidates, at least publicly.

By his creation of an exploratory committee, he is raising money and increasing his travels statewide. He said that he already has been to 41 counties in the last year and that by later this year will have visited all 62 counties.

Gibson was also the target of the first attack news release. New Yorkers Against Gun Violence last week slammed his opposition to the SAFE Act gun control law. He will retire at the end of the year from Congress, adding that to his résumé: retired Army colonel, deployed seven times, including to Iraq, and a stint commanding an 82nd Airborne Division unit on a humanitarian relief mission to Haiti.

“I’ve seen the human condition under the most trying of circumstances,” said Gibson, who has a Ph.D. in government from Cornell University and has taught politics at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

‘Anything is possible’

In Washington, Gibson has a reputation for party loyalty but also for working across the aisle with Democrats.

For that, Paladino has dubbed him a RINO, or Republican in Name Only.

Gibson recognizes that a Republican can’t win the governor’s office without boosting GOP turnout to a higher level than in 2014 and without getting major support from independents and having a “fair number” of Democratic votes. He represents a large congressional district that includes all or part of 11 counties, stretching from communities that border Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut on the east to Pennsylvania on the southwest. He lives in his childhood Village of Kinderhook, just down the road from the home of Martin Van Buren, who was New York governor for 12 days before being named U.S. secretary of state and, in 1836, elected as the nation’s eighth president.

Gibson, unlike the other possible GOP candidates, will be judged more quickly. His creation of an exploratory committee means that analysts can judge the level of excitement over what he’s doing when he has to report the financial activities – including fundraising – later this summer.

Gibson points to several issues that make Cuomo vulnerable for a third term, including what he says is the state’s high tax burden, the “reboots” of the Common Core Learning Standards and a “hunger games” economic-development program that pits regions of the state against one another.

“First and foremost, there’s a belief that this guy’s a bully. He approaches people with fear and intimidation and demonizing and attempting to divide,” Gibson said.

Astorino, who got 41 percent of the vote in 2014, has continued attacking Cuomo on issues from Albany’s corruption problems to high tax levels to job creation numbers in many parts of the state that have lagged behind the nation’s recovery.

Astorino, and the four other possible 2018 GOP candidates, appeared recently before the state’s Conservative Party, and he poked fun at Cuomo as a political shape-shifter. He said Cuomo once also spoke before the same Conservative gathering. In case there was any doubt, Astorino told the leaders of the small but influential party, he’s “absolutely” weighing another run for governor.

Paladino, who won election to the School Board after being defeated in the gubernatorial race of 2010, sends out regular missives criticizing Cuomo. Late last year, he took to a Fox Business Network program to declare his possible interest in a 2018 governor’s run. And he recently told The Buffalo News that he feels emboldened about GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s similar outspoken views and that New Yorkers are now ready to hear his own blunt assessments about Cuomo.

“A guy like Trump speaks like I do, and he’s running away with this thing,” Paladino said in December.

Wilson, whose résumé includes serving on the team that restructured Chrysler and GM, gained credibility after nearly defeating DiNapoli for comptroller six years ago. He used some of his personal wealth and upstate roots – he grew up in the working-class community of Johnstown in Fulton County – in that effort.

Wilson has been eyeing a governor’s race ever since, Republicans say, and his personal wealth, combined with GOP fundraising, could reduce some of Cuomo’s money advantages.

Last week, Wilson described the need for Republicans to get an early start. “While it’s quite early, the reality is that in a state the size of New York,” he said, “it takes a long time to get a message out and the resources to get that message out.”

Among Cuomo’s vulnerabilities, Wilson said, is his oversight of a state with a sour business climate that has hurt job growth in many parts of New York.

The other name kicking around is Molinaro, the Dutchess county executive.

The early action of some Republicans looking to run for governor may not be so much about Cuomo’s vulnerability as a desperate GOP need to get into the game in New York, one Democrat said.

The Republicans hold no statewide office, Republican presidential candidates come to New York only to seek money from wealthy fundraisers. and the State Senate is at risk of flipping to Democratic control this fall.

“In order for them to reinvigorate themselves, they need one statewide seat,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic consultant from Manhattan who has done work in the past for Cuomo. “The Republicans need a power place,” he said, adding that it’s not surprising that people such as Gibson are making moves now if they have any chance of getting out front of Astorino. “The institutional players see Astorino as the real thing.”

But does the GOP have a chance?

“ ‘Do they believe there’s an opportunity?’ is a real question,” he said. “Based on what we’re seeing in American politics right now, anything is possible.”

Donors are question mark

An unknown is whether big GOP fundraisers will sit out the 2018 race, as they have in two previous gubernatorial campaigns featuring Cuomo, for fear of alienating the governor in a state where they do business.

One major GOP donor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that there is a growing perception among fundraisers and donors that a strong GOP candidate could beat Cuomo or a Democratic successor in 2018. The donor predicted there will also be some unfreezing by GOP donors who have sat on the sidelines that last two gubernatorial races.

“I think one-third of it is Cuomo fatigue and two-thirds is a sense that a pro-freedom, pro-economic liberty, pro-growth, pro-positive middle-class values agenda can beat a progressive agenda,” the GOP donor said.

Add in an angry electorate, as displayed in the presidential campaign, and an incumbent such as Cuomo could be in trouble, he said.

Some Democrats and Republicans don’t believe that Cuomo is going to run for a third term, especially if there is a risk of losing. The head of the state GOP dismisses such talk.

“He’s going to run again,” Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox said. “He lives off power. It’s all about holding an office.”