National News

Woes Deepen for New York GOP as Best Hope to Challenge Cuomo Bows Out

Posted January 2, 2018 9:09 p.m. EST

Republican prospects to unseat Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in November just grew exponentially more daunting, with Harry Wilson’s decision this week to forgo his bid — leaving party strategists downcast, frustrated and scrambling.

Wilson, a businessman who unsuccessfully ran for state comptroller in 2010, was widely seen as the Republicans’ top recruit, and he had seriously looked at the governor’s race for months.

He registered the site in May 2017. He told Republican officials that he would invest $10 million of his own fortune into his campaign. He repeatedly pinged New York and national strategists about his pathway, including traveling to gatherings like the Republican Governors Association.

But he officially pulled the plug in a New Year’s Day Facebook post, citing his commitment to his family.

“Everyone was really hoping for Harry Wilson,” said Andrea Catsimatidis, the chairwoman of the Manhattan Republican Party. “We thought he would be great.”

Now New York Republicans are headed into the midterm elections, saddled by a president who is deeply unpopular in this heavily Democratic state and without a clear leader of their own for the top of the ticket. Whoever does run faces the financial might of Cuomo, who had banked more than $25 million for his run as of mid-2017 and is expected to report having millions of dollars more in the coming weeks.

“Because Harry was able to come to the table with his own personal financial commitment, we all kind of held in place wondering whether he’d get in or out,” said Marcus Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, who is also considering a Republican bid for governor. Just to match Cuomo’s treasury from six months ago, any Republican would need to raise more than $550,000 every week between now and November.

In a dozen interviews, Republican operatives and officials expressed a fresh urgency at their predicament. The state’s Republican congressional delegation is in the cross hairs of national Democrats hoping to win back the House, especially following the passage of a new tax law that punishes high-tax states like New York. And the party’s current lone foothold on power in Albany, their control of the state Senate bolstered by fragile alliances with renegade Democrats, is also imperiled this fall.

Over sodas and sandwiches, more than a dozen of New York’s top Republican political strategists gathered last month, convened by Catsimatidis, to plot a path back for the party.

On a whiteboard, they brainstormed together a list of ideal characteristics for a statewide Republican candidate, among them: resources (i.e. having money or the ability to raise vast sums), being a woman, being a political outsider, speaking Spanish and having a political base in downstate New York.

The problem? The current crop of Republicans check off almost none of those boxes.

So far, the only declared candidate is Brian Kolb, the Republican minority leader in the Assembly who represents a district near Rochester. Besides Molinaro, John DeFrancisco, the No. 2 Republican in the state Senate from near Syracuse, is also mulling a run, as is the former Erie County executive Joel Giambra, who since became a lobbyist and endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In addition to the messaging challenge of ousting a two-term governor for a political insider, Cuomo has proved adept at locking up campaign cash from institutional Albany, the same donors those challengers would likely have to rely upon.

“You can’t take the fight to Albany if you’re from Albany,” said one of the Republican operatives who attended, who spoke anonymously to not disparage the eventual nominee because so many of the current candidates are linked to Albany.

Some have urged Chele Chiavacci Farley, a finance chairwoman for the New York Republican Party, to challenge Cuomo. Farley is currently laying the groundwork to run against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand this year, and has begun assembling a campaign team, including John Brabender, a former adviser to the presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and the pollster John McLaughlin.

But Farley has told people she is set on a Senate bid.

“It’s clear that hardworking taxpayers are fed up with Kirsten Gillibrand’s obstruction, political grandstanding, and ineffectiveness,” she said in a statement. “In the next few weeks, I will be making an official announcement about my intentions.”

Republican county party leaders are set to gather in Albany on Monday to plot their next steps; two days later, in Manhattan, the same strategists that met last month are scheduled to reconvene.

For now, the Republican political strategy seems to be mostly hoping that Cuomo, riding high in polls, self-destructs: that the transit woes of New York City’s subways worsen; that the upcoming corruption trial of one of his former top aides, Joseph Percoco, tarnishes his image; that the state budget falls out of whack; that Democrats challenge and wound him from the left in a primary; and that the third-term curse proves an actual curse. Geoff Berman, the executive director of the New York Democratic Party, rattled off Cuomo’s accomplishments, including gun control, infrastructure investment and managing the budget for Cuomo’s strong position.

“That’s a hard record to run against, and these would-be candidates know it,” Berman said. “New Yorkers aren’t stupid. They know a good thing when they see one and are not going to be fooled by the empty rhetoric of extreme conservatives, no matter how well-funded or rich they may be.”

Ed Cox, the chairman of the New York Republican Party, said the governor’s race would be an “anybody but Cuomo” campaign, just like the one that felled Cuomo’s father, the former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, in 1994. Except now Republicans are expected to battle Trump headwinds; in 1994, they were riding an anti-Clinton wave.

“The Bills are in the playoffs for the first time in 17 years, so I always remain hopeful that we can win statewide,” said Andrea Bozek, a Buffalo-based Republican strategist who previously ran communications for House Republican campaigns nationally.

But in New York, she said, Republicans are inured to a weak top of the ticket. “It’s just a benefit that we haven’t enjoyed,” she said. “It would be awesome, but ...”

Her voice trailed off, and she did not finish the sentence.