BY PETER ROFF
Op-ed originally published in US News and World Report
Most of the pundits who follow national politics have already made up their minds about what’s going on in New York. They see the possibility of a GOP pickup of two or even three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, especially if President Barack Obama’s job approval number is, as it appears to be, headed south of 40 percent. Aside from that, however, they expect bad news for the GOP.
New York’s Republican Party has yet to recover from the thumping it received eight years ago at the hands of the now-disgraced Elliot Spitzer, the former governor whom history will always refer to as “Client No. 9.” Partisans on both sides see the NYGOP as weak, which is why some connected to the party have made common cause with Democrat Andrew Cuomo in his bid for a second term. They know the spoils coming out of Albany get divided up, and they’re making a play for a piece of the action.
On paper, Cuomo looks strong. The latest polls show him with a commanding lead of more than 30 points over his Republican opponent, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. What the analysts and rent-seekers among the political class forget is that this little more than a reflection of how well-known each candidate is to the state’s electorate. It also means that while Astorino has no place to go but up, Cuomo has no place to go but down – and precipitously at that. If there’s a place in America where a dramatic, “come-from-behind” upset is possible, it’s in the Empire State.
Cuomo – who as U.S. Housing Secretary under Bill Clinton helped sow the seeds of the of the subprime mortgage crisis that didn’t explode until the end of the Bush presidency – is not a popular governor. He has systematically antagonized lawful gun owners, taxpayers, Catholics, the unemployed and conservatives, who are a significant portion of the equally significant upstate electorate. At the same time, he’s helping New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver – who rules the chamber with an iron fist and makes Tammany’s Boss Tweed look like a statesman – keep the lid on a series of scandals that insiders say would rock the state capital to its foundations were the full extent of what was going on known to the voters.
The economy is in the tank. Businesses continue to leave the state, taking jobs with them. And Cuomo is an unyielding opponent of fracking, the revolutionary technology that promises to make New York an energy powerhouse if only the natural gas industry were able to sink some wells.
In short, Cuomo is very vulnerable, especially if any of the national groups or billionaire-backed SuperPACs chooses to weigh in on the race. And they have reason to do so. Should former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton again stumble in her bid to become the nation’s first female chief executive, Cuomo is waiting in the wings, chomping at the bit and raring to go. Booting him out of Albany now keeps him from running for president later.
All this, of course, requires an able candidate possessed of a winning political philosophy who can assemble a coalition of voters among the state’s three distinct electoral areas – upstate New York, New York City and Long Island. Upstate and Long Island are reliably Republican to some degree – although not as much as was once the case and certainly not enough to offset the big boost a Democrat can expect to have coming out of New York City. The key then is two-to-one Democrat by party registration Westchester County, whose top spot Astorino has twice won, the second time by a decisive margin against a serious opponent backed by both Cuomo and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Westchester is now as middle class as places get, and Cuomo’s agenda (which mirrors that of the national Democratic Party) rests on milking those voters as much as possible. They are the ones paying the freight for all the giveaways the governor and his allies are using to try and buy four more years in power. Astorino, meanwhile, is leading the fight against the formerly Cuomo-led federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to make the county “Ground Zero” for what the Wall Street Journal called “a racial engineering project to redefine discrimination by demography.”
“The Republican has a history of doing well with suburban Democrats, who also resent Washington attempts to rezone their neighborhoods,” the paper recently editorialized. “In 2010 Mr. Astorino won 25 percent of the black vote and 30 percent of Democrats. Mr. Cuomo is worried enough that he recently cut a deal with the public-union Working Families Party, which suggest he will move left on tax and the economy if he wins re-election.”
As the Journal said, Cuomo is doing what he can to keep Wall Street off the Republican bandwagon and, in doing so, deny the GOP the funds it needs to get its message out to the voters. Despite this, Astorino raised $3.4 million in the first half of 2014, with more than $2 million left on hand – which is certainly enough to get him started, especially if he uses the Internet to distribute his ads instead of broadcast television, which is much more expensive.
All of the elements are there – even more so then when an formerly unknown state senator from Westchester County named George Pataki defeated the current governor’s father in the upset of upsets during the 1994 GOP tidal wave that brought the Republicans into power all over the United States. Astorino has the issues on his side, the Democrats are in trouble nationally because of Obama’s abysmal job performance, and Andrew Cuomo is even more out of touch than Mario Cuomo was the last time he faced the voters. All he needs to do now to make the seemingly impossible possible is raise the money.