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Robert McCarthy: State GOP may have found a political franchise quarterback

These are anxious days inside the lairs of New York Republicans.

The 2017 elections have passed, and now the state GOP licks its wounds. It got creamed in big counties like Nassau, Westchester and Monroe last month. Only Chairman Nick Langworthy’s Erie County crew emerged relatively unscathed with wins for clerk, comptroller and sheriff – while narrowly losing the County Legislature.

So the party limps into 2018, a gubernatorial election year in which prospects appear daunting even for the most optimistic Republicans.

Assuming Gov. Andrew Cuomo seeks a third term, he enters election year with powerful advantages. Back in July he reported almost $26 million in his treasury, which will grow substantially when the governor throws his annual birthday bash for a few hundred of his closest (and richest) friends at Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan on Dec. 14.

For $50,000, you get a “premier table” for 10, plus three tickets to a private reception with the guest of honor, according to the New York Times. Guests include former President Bill Clinton and Jon Bon Jovi (note to Cuomo: forget about ever slating a Bon Jovi event in Buffalo, given the rocker’s unsuccessful bid to buy the Bills and move them out of town).

Cuomo’s powerful political organization is commanded by Byron Brown, mayor of Buffalo and state Democratic chairman. From money to manpower to party enrollment, the governor enjoys many advantages.

Last week, New York Republicans were dealt another blow as Brown and others attempt to unite mainline Democrats in the State Senate with eight members of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference that shares control of the upper house with Republicans. Should that effort succeed, the GOP would lose its last bastion of power in state government.

Now New York Republicans seek a knight in shining armor; someone to charge in astride his white steed to slay the Democratic dragon and rescue the GOP damsel in distress. We don’t know if businessman Harry Wilson even owns a horse, and we’re pretty sure he’s never wielded a lance. But he’s as close as it gets these days for the New York GOP.

A Westchester financier and native of the Mohawk Valley City of Johnstown, Wilson appears as the Republicans’ best hope against Cuomo. He ran more than respectably for comptroller against Democrat Tom DiNapoli in 2010, is talking about dropping millions of his own dollars on a 2018 gubernatorial campaign, and is still scratching his political itch.

But he’s made no decision on whether he will run.

“I think there’s a better than 50-50 chance he goes,” said Langworthy, the Erie County GOP chief and a Wilson fan. “He’s the franchise quarterback for us.”

Other Republicans are making noises about challenging Cuomo, but Langworthy thinks most party leaders see Wilson as competitive – wealthy with business savvy, political experience and a reputation for turning around failing companies.

In addition, many party leaders think only Wilson among the current crop of gubernatorial wannabes can attract quality candidates to the “down ballot” slots for attorney general and comptroller. Those elections will pose tremendous challenges given the advantages of incumbency held by DiNapoli and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman – both Democrats.

As Republicans await Wilson’s decision, their national leader – President Trump – complicates the situation. By most accounts, his tax overhaul proposal will cause myriad problems in high-tax states like New York, especially eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes.

Cuomo, along with Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, has gone around the state relentlessly attacking the plan and its Republican advocates in New York. It will be tough for any Republican running for statewide office to embrace Trump in the wake of that trio.

So New York Republicans now await Wilson’s decision. They know they face a tough road ahead in taking on Cuomo. They also think only Wilson will make it interesting.

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