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Bob McCarthy: Erie County looms large in governor's race

When Marc Molinaro gathered reporters on Main Street Wednesday to talk about his Republican campaign for governor, he started with a noteworthy observation.

"You’re probably going to see me pretty often,” he said.

The Dutchess County executive is not traveling westward these days just to sample local cuisine, though he did venture later that day to the political mecca known as Chef’s Restaurant. Instead, Molinaro thinks he can win Erie County.

And if a candidate for governor can win Erie County, he just might be in business.

“I think I can do well here; I think I can win,” he said over strawberry iced teas at TGI Friday’s.

That’s a tall order for a Republican in Democratic Erie County. Dems outnumber Repubs 279,366 to 149,927 here, making it difficult for Molinaro from the get-go.

But it can be done. Republican Carl Paladino won Erie by about 50,000 votes in 2010 – though we’ll chalk up at least some of that to support for the hometown boy. Republican George Pataki won Erie County in three runs for governor in 1994, 1998 and 2002. So did former Republican Attorney General Dennis Vacco in 1994 and 1998.

Those elections are beginning to fade into history, however, while New York and Erie County these days dons a much deeper shade of blue. In addition, a Democratic “wave” is predicted around the country in 2018.

Still, Molinaro’s likely opponent – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – must look 280 miles west of the governor’s mansion and ask: “What more must I do out there in Buffalo?” After a Buffalo Billion investment, hands-on emergency management during 7-foot snowstorms, and regular visits highlighting his “Buffalo was poor, downtrodden and wallowing in woe before my administration” message, Cuomo beat Rob Astorino by only about 22,000 votes.

And if Molinaro is to pull it off, he must succeed in Democratic places like Cheektowaga, West Seneca and Hamburg – where it has been done before. Indeed, new Assemblyman Erik Bohen – a Democrat running on the GOP and Conservative lines – just beat the Democratic organization in an April 24 special election where the Republican candidate triumphed in the district’s West Seneca portion 2,360 to 1,941.

In the days before the special election, Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy was sniffing the possibility of a Bohen victory. No doubt he was polling voters there, and not coincidentally, flooded voters with a wave of anti-Cuomo literature.

He credits the win with recognizing that sentiment among normally loyal Democratic voters. The chairman is now looking ahead to November, and is only too happy to squire Molinaro around Erie County in the months ahead.

“I think we’ll be seeing lots of him up here,” Langworthy said. “I know where the governor stands here, and it’s fertile territory for an anti-Cuomo message.”

The governor, meanwhile, has ventured to Erie County only once in the last six months. This summer he must even deal with a Democratic primary nemesis – actress-activist Cynthia Nixon – who is clearly enjoying her role as official “rougher-up” of the governor. As she draws him as far left as he dares, she also plants land mines for Cuomo in those “fertile” places like West Seneca, Cheektowaga and Hamburg.

The governor might not want to talk about some of his progressive ideals in those places.

For sure, the gubernatorial election of 2018 will not be won or lost in Erie County. It may rank as a big, urban county, but always has and always will be lost in New York City dominance.

But smart pols like Cuomo and Molinaro know that Erie often points the way for the rest of the state. Cuomo’s father – the late Gov. Mario M. Cuomo – recognized all this in the final days of the 1994 election when he campaigned furiously here, only to lose Erie and New York to Pataki.

The two Cuomos liked to talk politics in their day. If Cuomo the Elder were still with us, he would advise the current governor to pay close attention to Erie County. Labels often don’t matter here, and anything can happen.

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