It must have been a surreal experience a few days ago for Nicholas A. Langworthy, the rookie chairman of the New York State Republican Party.
The Erie County leader since 2010, Langworthy found himself in Saratoga Springs, surrounded by Republicans who at one time actually wielded power in New York – a concept far removed from the politics of 2019. The group was celebrating the 25th anniversary of George E. Pataki’s election as the last GOP governor, and Langworthy could only imagine one of his own occupying the Governor’s Mansion for 12 years – as Pataki did – supported by a powerful GOP Senate to boot.
“It was a reminder that ... those who are younger never remember a time with a Republican governor,” he said, “and what it meant for the party and the state.”
Langworthy – the first state GOP chairman from Erie County since Edwin F. Jaeckle in 1944 – now faces a Herculean task in returning to the days when Pataki, Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato and former Chairman William D. Powers ruled over the state’s powerful Republican regime.
Politics in New York has vastly changed since then. The 2018 elections swept the GOP from its last Albany bastion – the Senate – and shifting demographics point to an ominous future for a party that always found a way to win, even in Democratic New York.
Six weeks after Langworthy nudged 10-year Chairman Edward F. Cox out of party leadership, the South Dayton native and Niagara University graduate is discovering the grim realities of presiding over a party that Democrats now basically ignore. Cox left him with only $22,000 in his state treasury (after the Albany Times-Union reported the bulk of remaining funds were disbursed to county organizations supporting his re-election against Langworthy), though a separate federal account contains more than $300,000. And much of the state’s party structure still reacts with curiosity to the 38-year-old Western New Yorker now leading the party.
Yet the new chairman exudes optimism. He insists the party needed a new approach, that his enthusiasm is spreading to moribund county organizations, and that the leftward lurch initiated by the state’s all-Democratic hierarchy is already encountering voter pushback.
As a result, Langworthy’s new role takes him around the state, and the world, representing the party in a visit to Israel in July, and traveling to Charlotte, N.C., (site of the 2020 Republican National Convention) earlier this month for meetings of the Republican National Committee.
Now he implements an ambitious agenda he says starts with blunting any 2022 plans that incumbent Democrat Andrew M. Cuomo harbors for a fourth term as governor. He rails against “crazy, radical liberals in Albany” following the Democratic takeover of the Senate, and says he is convinced the GOP can eventually overcome the opposition’s 3 million voter advantage.
“We defeated one Cuomo reaching for a fourth term,” Langworthy said, referring to Pataki’s defeat of former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo in 1994. “I think we can do it again.”
Raising money, fighting 'socialists'
The new chairman has immediately stamped his imprint on the party. He weighs in daily on state and national issues through longtime party spokeswoman Jessica Proud, and recently hired national fundraiser Brielle Appelbaum to replenish party coffers. That may loom as his most important task for the immediate future.
“We will make a broad-based appeal to donors at all levels,” he said. “We have to get the average Joes out on the street to invest in two-party government and not be just a country club Republican Party.”
Other immediate goals include:
• Creating a “62-county strategy” to narrow the growing enrollment gap. That involves not only registering new voters, but recruiting people to join the institutional party and building a “strong bench” that many observers say the party now lacks.
• Increasing diversity, including efforts to elect more women to office and party positions.
• Adopting “very aggressive messaging” to challenge “one party government” and a new Democratic establishment he says is marked by the election of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx and other “Democratic socialists.”
“We will take this governor and the socialists in Albany to task every step of the way,” he said.
No illusions about party's plight
Of all the goals listed by the new chairman, electing a Republican governor seems to rank as paramount. As progressive Democrats increase their dominance over state government, he believes the former one-house Assembly bills sponsored by “crazy, radical liberals” now all stand to be enacted. And, he says, the governor may very well get caught up in a leftward movement that drifts too far.
“Like it or not, Andrew Cuomo – who used to pretend to be a centrist – will have to play along with these people,” he said.
Already, Langworthy says much of his travels across the state aim to recruit a GOP candidate for governor in 2022. Harry Wilson, the Westchester financier and 2010 candidate for comptroller who is often mentioned, remains high on his list.
“He certainly has a story to tell and the expertise,” he said.
Few observers around the state, and even Langworthy himself, harbor any illusions about returning the party to the days of Govs. Thomas E. Dewey, Nelson A. Rockefeller or Pataki.
Veteran Manhattan consultant Jerry Skurnick, who heads the Prime New York firm that specializes in political data, recalls his “expert” friends musing back in 1975 about the future of the Assembly.
“Everyone talked about the Democrats taking over then as a ‘fluke,’ ” he said, noting they have controlled the lower house ever since and that “anything can happen.”
But the continued strength of the Democratic Party in New York, he said, makes Langworthy’s goals hard to achieve.
“It’s hard to see with the numbers the way they are, and at the moment, with Trump as president,” he said. “If I had to bet, the Democrats will continue to be in control in New York State for a number of years.”
Talking up Trump
As Langworthy looks to the future, an integral part of the plan centers around making the New York GOP very much the “party of Trump.” The Erie County chairman was among a core group who first approached Manhattan developer Donald Trump in 2013 about running for governor. Though that plan never materialized, Trump went on to bigger and better things with Langworthy remaining an ardent supporter.
Indeed, the New York Times reported earlier this year that the race for state chairman was all but settled when the White House signaled its support for Langworthy and offered Cox a key spot on the presidential fundraising team. The Buffalo News also reported the president personally called Langworthy to welcome him to the post.
The new chairman says he will continue to support Trump and his brand of Republicanism even if the president has no chance of winning New York in 2020. He dismisses the "racist” and “white supremacist” labels used by some Democrats, blaming such politics on “media fascination with Twitter.”
He will continue to link the president to a booming economy, and talk up Trump wherever he can across the state. That’s because he sees a strong turnout in Republican areas of upstate and the metropolitan suburbs, which could translate into GOP gains like recapturing at least some of the three House seats lost in the 2018 Democratic landslide.
“The president was not at the top of the ticket in 2018 and that was to our detriment,” Langworthy said, predicting that a GOP ticket led by Trump will be supported by people who vote with their pocketbook.
Building toward 2022
Langworthy recently said he will soon leave the Erie County chairmanship, though no successor has been identified (he has also said he will step aside from his Liberty Public Opinion polling firm). Nobody, however, expects him to ignore where he built a statewide reputation by often winning in overwhelmingly Democratic turf. As a result, he promises that Legislator Lynne M. Dixon’s campaign for Erie County executive will gain his full attention.
“We will have a real chance in the fall, when a lot of statewide and ideological questions will be on the table as well,” he said, offering a hint of a campaign expected to link incumbent Mark C. Poloncarz to the Democratic Party’s left wing.
As his new role makes him a familiar site on the Thruway, Langworthy appears to accept the challenge before him. He knows that the state’s political pendulum has swung leftward, but that voters may eventually react.
He would not have taken the job, he said, without some reason for optimism. Restoring House seats, gaining in the State Senate, and looking toward the 2022 gubernatorial election top his wish list.
“We need a party ready for that moment,” he said. “We’ve got three and half years to build the infrastructure.”