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‘Rockefeller Republicans’ are scarce in New York these days

There was a time when New York Republicans clad themselves in a lighter shade of red.

A “moderate” GOP attracted many New Yorkers, propelling a billionaire named Nelson A. Rockefeller to four terms in the Executive Mansion from 1959 to 1973 – longer than any modern governor.

Some say George E. Pataki also drifted toward the center, winning three terms from 1995 to 2006 – the only Republican to be elected governor since Rockefeller.

But now a different GOP dominates New York, embracing firebrands like Carl P. Paladino or Donald J. Trump. And even if not everyone labels the Manhattan billionaire conservative, he certainly eschews the “moderate” and “establishment” tags so eagerly donned by previous Republicans. Now GOP leaders ostracize RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) and have joined forces with the right-wing Conservative Party in every gubernatorial election since 1974.

Trump and Paladino, supporters point out, have done all right for themselves in GOP primaries. Indeed, Trump claimed five more states in this week’s Super Tuesday primaries.

But the question still lingers: Whatever happened to New York’s “Rockefeller Republicans?” The ones who won?

“(The party) is getting smaller and smaller and not really having much influence,” said Richard M. Rosenbaum, the Rochester attorney who was Rockefeller’s Republican state chairman from 1973 to 1977 and who unsuccessfully challenged Pataki in the 1994 gubernatorial primary.

“It’s like the dodo bird,” he added. “It’s almost extinct.”

A slew of developments underscore Rosenbaum’s concerns:

• A February Siena Research Institute poll of New York Republicans shows Trump far ahead of any other “establishment” presidential candidate with 34 percent of the vote. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was second with 16 percent.

• Paladino cruised to a 2-to-1 GOP primary victory when he ran for governor in 2010 over a “moderate,” establishment candidate. He won Erie County 94 to 6 percent.

• A Feb. 13 unscientific straw poll of 313 Erie County Republicans – mostly part of the local party establishment – showed 57 percent cast their votes for Trump.

• New York Republicans have not won a statewide election since Pataki’s in 2002, and barely cling to their last bastion of power in the State Senate majority.

• Democrats continue to attract new members, increasing their enrollment advantage by 1 million voters since 1996.

Edward F. Cox, state Republican chairman and son-in-law of another moderate Republican – Richard M. Nixon – faces the unenviable task of shepherding state Republicans during tough times. He points out that for all their accomplishments, Rockefeller and Republican New York Mayor John V. Lindsay spent so much money that the state is still catching up.

“We need to be much more fiscally conservative, especially for New York City, to keep its stature and to continue to thrive,” Cox said. “The party recognizes now, across the board, that’s what we have to do. And that’s different from Lindsay and Rockefeller.”

All of New York State, he added, cannot advance without an entity like the GOP reminding voters of what he called a hostile business climate, high taxes and high energy costs. And he noted that voters in Democratic states like Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland all turned to Republican governors in 2014 – giving hope even to New York Republicans.

Though Democrat Andrew M. Cuomo handily defeated him for governor in 2010, Paladino remains a major New York Republican by continually challenging Cox and “calling out RINOs.” Buoyed by Trump’s strength and his similar appeal in New York, Paladino is making serious noise about running for governor again in 2018.

“The failure of the Republican Party is the failure of the New York State Legislature and the Albany cesspool,” Paladino said. “The way of life in New York politics has to be the most corrupt in the nation.”

Candidates like him or Trump can not only win a New York primary, Paladino said, but snare an occasional general election too – if they emphasize the right issues. He blamed 2014 gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino for campaigning on hard-to-grasp educational matters like Common Core instead of economic or emotional issues like Cuomo’s SAFE Act gun control law.

“The Republican base stayed home in the Astorino election because he was taking on stupid issues like the core curriculum and not the SAFE Act, which is so simple,” he said of the gun law enacted three years after he ran. “If I only had the SAFE Act.”

Paladino criticized Cox as part of the “Washington establishment” that fails to recognize Trump’s current support. He predicted the chairman will be replaced in 2017.

“The grass-roots people will rise and take out the county leaders, and we’ll have a whole new Republican Party in the next year,” he said.

Conservative Republicans might survive and prosper in some parts of upstate and Long Island, said former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, but they face tough statewide odds when enrollment favors Democrats by almost 3 million voters. He noted that not all Republicans consider Trump conservative, and that Rockefeller championed truly liberal policies during his tenure.

“Remember, a Rockefeller Republican is a liberal Republican, not moderate, but left of center,” Reynolds said, recalling other Rockefeller-era Republicans like governors George Romney of Michigan and William Scranton of Pennsylvania, who harbored similar views. Those views no longer attract New York Republicans, he added.

“With the party’s turnout from the right, it’s important to realize the center is getting narrower,” he said. “There really is no middle with these pushes to the harder left and harder right.

“I think Rockefeller would have a difficult time with today’s Republican politics,” he added. “There a lot of things he would have to do to make it with the natural base of the Republican Party.”

And regardless of some Trump positions, Reynolds said Trump is conveying a conservative tone in debates and elsewhere.

“Perception is reality,” he said.

Reynolds’ one-time colleague, former Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr., R-Hamburg, thrived for 12 years in the nation’s most Democratic district held by a Republican. He remained conservative on many social issues, but embraced labor causes and found a special niche with other moderate New York Republicans in the House like John M. McHugh of Watertown, Amo Houghton of Corning, and James T. Walsh of Syracuse.

Quinn said moderate Republicans of his era met each week in the “Tuesday Group” to hash over their efforts.

“I don’t even know if they meet anymore,” he said. “Both parties tilt to the right or left. I don’t even know if I could go back and be elected.”

New York’s “fusion” politics also produces unique circumstances because major party candidates can run on minor lines, allowing parties like the Conservatives to wield disproportionate power in relation to their numbers. Formed in 1962 to act as a check on Rockefeller Republicans, the party has not run its own candidate since Paul L. Adams in 1970 and counts only 148,000 members (compared to 5.3 million Democrats and 2.5 million Republicans).

But Conservatives continue to act as a check on the state GOP, reining it rightward in the face of an implied threat to run its own statewide candidates and split the anti-Democratic vote. No Republican has won statewide office since 1974 without Conservative support,

“I think New York State’s grass-roots Republicans have consistently moved more to the right than the leadership of the party,” said state Conservative Chairman Michael R. Long. “And certainly, when needed, the Conservative Party makes the difference for more conservative Republicans.

“We’ve had a major impact on the candidates selected,” he added.

Cuomo, whose Democrats continue to crowd out Republicans except for the Senate, says he understands the dynamic behind support for Trump, even in New York. He said it would be unthinkable not long ago for Trump and Cruz to poll so well in New York, or for that matter, for “Democratic socialist” Sen. Bernie Sanders among Democrats.

“What’s happening? They’re angry,” Cuomo said. “They are angry on both ends of the spectrum, they’re angry at the establishment. And in some ways it’s an equal and opposite reaction.”

Steven A. Greenberg, spokesman for the Siena poll reporting 50 percent combined support for Trump and Cruz, emphasized the February survey of New York Republicans will not necessarily reflect the results of the April 19 GOP primary. But he believes conservatives will always determine Republican primaries in the same way as liberals in Democratic contests – because they vote.

And he doesn’t buy that New York’s Republicans have swung so far to the right, especially in general elections.

“As a whole, New York Republicans tend to be less conservative as a group than, say South Carolina,” Greenberg said. “And you often see New York Republicans far more moderate on social and economic issues.”

He said the poll reflects the name recognition of national figures like Trump and Cruz more than what will happen on April 19, and that nobody “should make the mistake that Trump is a conservative.”

“Donald Trump has slightly positive favorable ratings, but is under water with self-identified conservatives,” he said.

But as Republicans head toward Buffalo on Friday and their state convention, they appear attracted to candidates having nothing to do with the establishment. Paladino told The Buffalo News back in December that he is weighing another run for governor because his style and Trump’s seem to represent what Republican voters crave.

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