ALBANY — Two candidates for governor against Andrew Cuomo have dropped out in the last week. No candidate against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has gotten beyond the whisper phase. There’s still no challenger to the state attorney general or comptroller.
In President Donald Trump’s home state, the New York Republican Party is on the verge of disaster. It has so far come up dry in its efforts to put together a top-tier 2018 statewide ticket — a budding failure with implications that would ripple beyond state borders.
If the current situation holds, some of Trump’s most aggressive Democratic Party critics could get a free pass to reelection. And Gillibrand and Cuomo, who have been positioning themselves for potential 2020 presidential campaigns, could see resume-enhancing victories — runaway wins that will become part of their pitch to Democratic donors and presidential primary voters.
Within New York itself, down-ballot GOP candidates — including a handful of vulnerable congressional incumbents — could find themselves ravaged by national political forces beyond their control in the 2018 midterm election, without any top-of-the-ticket protection from Republican statewide candidates.
Jim Kelly, the field director for two Republican candidates for U.S. Senate, posted this message on his Facebook page last Thursday morning: “Wanted: GOP candidates to run for gov, comptroller, attorney general, U.S. Senate.”
That plaintive cry came hours before the party lost another of its options to face Cuomo, when Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro said he would not be a gubernatorial candidate. Harry Wilson, a business adviser, walked away on New Year’s Day.
“There is a panic at this time,” Kelly told POLITICO on Friday. “When Wilson dropped out, that vacuumed everyone else out.”
Kelly’s not the only one pushing the panic button. Party officials and seasoned operatives who spoke to POLITICO in recent days have used words like “crisis” and “desperate” to describe the state of affairs, as the two potential gubernatorial candidates deemed the strongest have opted out and potential candidates for two other key statewide positions races are non-existent.
Party chairs met Monday at the Fort Orange Club, just up the hill from the Capitol, to hear out the three remaining gubernatorial prospects: Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, Senate Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco and Joel Giambra, a lobbyist and former Erie County executive.
They also met with Chele Chiavacci Farley, a private equity executive and party fundraiser from Manhattan who had been talking to party leaders about challenging Gillibrand. Joe Holland, a housing commissioner and co-chair of former Gov. George Pataki’s campaign, was another prospective candidate interviewed about a Senate run.
Any challenge to Cuomo was going to be a daunting task. Cuomo is expected to report around $30 million in his campaign account next week and has the support of key labor and business groups in line — an accoutrement of incumbency. With just 10 months before Election Day to go and no well-known or well-funded favorite, Republican leaders know they have a steep incline ahead.
“I think everything’s got to be on the table. I’m going to be in a room with all of my colleagues from around the state and listen to their perspective on what 2017 meant to them, but also as we look at what we have to do this year,” Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy said. “We’re a little behind in our recruitment, but there’s nothing we can’t catch up on relatively quickly.”
But you can’t buy back time, said Susan Del Percio, a Republican strategist who advised the party’s leaders in the state Senate and briefly worked for Cuomo.
“The truth of the matter is, it’s very late,” she said. “Anyone who is interested, unless they’re extremely well-funded, needed to start running a year ago to raise money, get their name out there and raise awareness. And in this current environment, having President Trump in charge will scare away a lot of people — just look at the county executive races in Westchester and Nassau counties.” (Republicans lost both of those races last year.)
Wilson, who ran a close race for comptroller in 2010, had told party leaders that he would put $10 million of his own money into the race. He had already begun cutting attack ads and touring the state, and party insiders indicated he was such a strong Plan A that Plan B was left on the vine.
In the attorney general’s race, GOP leaders have floated no names as challengers to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who on his own or in concert with others has sued the Trump administration over its travel ban, the end of the DACA program and the rollback of various environmental regulations. There are also no known challengers to Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, an amiable politician who is a favorite of the state’s unions.
State Republican Chairman Ed Cox has done his best to shrug off the blank ticket.
“This is an ABC election like ’94 — anyone but Cuomo,” he said, a reference to the upset victory of former GOP Gov. George Pataki, then a rank-and-file state legislator who toppled the current governor’s father. “It’s always a referendum, particularly when you have a governor who is running for a third term, in this case for a fourth Democratic term as it was in 1994.”
Cox said that conditions were even better for the GOP this time around, due to the looming corruption trials of former Cuomo associates and the belief that the two Democrats who will appear on the top of the ballot are seeking higher office.
“[Cuomo is] just using the people of New York State as a stepping stone to the presidency. Ouch, that does not work … Sen. Gillibrand is clearly interested in running for president also, so there will be national money.”
In 1994, Republicans had the benefit of a sitting U.S. senator, Al D’Amato, to help raise money as well as a stronger hold on the majority in the state Senate. Cox and other operatives, though, feel their case against Cuomo is strong: Economic development deals that have borne questionable fruit, looming corruption trials and service problems roiling New York City’s subways.
Who to make the argument, though?
Kolb, an Upstate legislator, has formally declared his candidacy, but the Syracuse-based DeFrancisco is still weighing his future.
Giambra, who last held elective office in 2007, formally declared his candidacy after Wilson bowed out. He is moderate on social issues — he has no plans to roll back Cuomo’s gun-control law, supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights up to the third trimester — and endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016. He’s contributed to Democratic politicians, but says doing so will let him speak to the “obscene” nature of politics as usual in New York.
It may make him more electable in a general election but will be a difficult sell for GOP stalwarts. Still, Giambra said he hopes to avoid a primary and that the path to the nomination will become clear for him in the coming weeks. If not, the 61-year-old will focus on the real estate business he’s built in his native Buffalo.
“I’m at the point now where I’m not looking for career politics,” he said. “I already had that. I’m looking for an opportunity to change the dialogue, to change the discussion, to talk as an insider — openly — and tell you where the problems are, where the warts are and see if we can fix them. I don’t have anything to lose.”
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