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Republicans are acting like Democrats in NY-27

Robert J. McCarthy

For lots of years, readers of the Politics Column could count on regular accounts of those fighting, scrapping, always-trying-to-throttle-each-other Erie County Democrats. It made for entertaining reading here and across the state.

Indeed, former state Comptroller Carl McCall famously joked that whenever he visited Buffalo, he never knew where to step among the warring camps. He might set off a land mine.

But in early 2020, Republicans found themselves deeply divided heading into last weekend’s nomination of State Sen. Chris Jacobs for a special election in the 27th Congressional District. According to several sources, State Sen. Rob Ortt brought strong support to the secret meeting in Varysburg, and almost prevailed.

Small counties such as Livingston and Wyoming punched beyond their weight to try to bring home the nod for Jacobs. Sometimes the little guys can pull one off.

In the end, leaders of the district’s eight counties, charged by law with the unenviable task of naming a special election candidate, stood together to announce their support for Jacobs. Those local Democrats of old would have continued their warfare for decades.

Still, an uneasy truce settles over Republicanland, even if one knowledgeable source labels the eight county organizations as “fractured.” At least two of the rejected candidates – Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw and former Darien Town Justice Beth Parlato – promise a primary challenge in June. Ortt and White House aide Jeff Freeland are considering.

(Republicans aren’t supposed to have primaries. Those are for Democrats.)

Mychajliw’s forces are already rallying following the Jacobs nomination. Marilla Supervisor Earl Gingerich Jr., one of about a dozen southern Erie County officials favoring the comptroller, thinks Jacobs was thrust upon the party.

“We’re tired of these people high up in the county or state making picks for the people they represent,” he said. “They don’t even talk to us on the front lines.”

And to complicate matters, the GOP’s usually reliable Conservative allies are rejecting Jacobs. A party named “Conservative” thinks Jacobs is not “conservative.” Fairly or unfairly, Jacobs must now defend his conservative credentials.

Need more complication? Throw in the promise of a Washington political committee called Club for Growth to spend at least $1 million questioning Jacobs’ conservatism, neutralizing the $1 million Jacobs already brings to the effort. The source who asked not to be identified said even Club for Growth’s early efforts in the district proved influential.

“Whether they were fair or not, Club for Growth hit their mark and cast a pall on the Jacobs candidacy,” he said. “They were successful in branding him.”

John Pauer, chairman of the Livingston County Republicans, says all of this means the GOP must work hard in the expected April 28 special election. Democrat Nate McMurray will benefit from real interest in his party’s presidential primary.

“A major concern is getting out that Republican and Conservative vote,” he said a few days ago. “There will be a huge Democratic turnout because of a presidential primary that will mobilize their base.”

Another concern whispered among Republicans is the “not conservative enough” aura suddenly surrounding Jacobs. Mychajliw attacks Jacobs along those lines every chance he gets. Club for Growth is ready to spend big bucks. Even the Conservative Party turns its back.

Will conservative Republicans stay home with Jacobs on the ballot as all those Dems stream to the polls?

“I believe that in the next few weeks a lot of falsehoods that have been spread will be dealt with by the campaign,” Pauer said. “And we have to work on getting out our base and also the moderates.”

The Livingston chairman hits it right. The district formerly represented by Republican Chris Collins is the most Republican in New York – never a problem. It still looks good for the GOP, but no Republican should consider it easy. McMurray has a habit of working hard.

Even the Republicans will have to work at this one.

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