The Republicans Who Can’t Win

Photo: Danny Kim

John Faso told you so. Again. In 2002, Faso tried to save New York from Alan Hevesi, losing narrowly in the race for state comptroller. Four years later, Faso ran for governor and was blown out by Eliot Spitzer. These days, Hevesi may be looking at a prison sentence and Spitzer has been sentenced to a CNN talk show. Faso stayed off the ballot this year but tried to keep state Republicans from sabotaging themselves: First he backed Steve Levy, recognizing that the controversial Long Island pol could capitalize on the electorate’s foul anti-Establishment mood. When other state-party insiders kept Levy out of the primary, Faso tried to unite feuding Republican factions behind the anodyne Rick Lazio, warning that the angry Buffalo millionaire bent on petitioning his way into the contest was even worse. And next week Carl Paladino will finish proving him right.

Faso—now an Albany lobbyist whose firm was recently fined as part of the state-pension-fund investigation—laughs ruefully. “Being right is no consolation,” he says. “It’s just frustrating.”

Nationally, Republicans are rising; with a boost from a bad economy, weakened campaign-finance laws, and tea-party insurgents, the GOP appears poised to win statehouses from New Mexico to Maine and grab formerly blue U.S. Senate seats in Colorado, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and Indiana. For New York Republicans, though, it’s hard to say which is the bigger embarrassment: picking Paladino as the nominee for governor or failing to field a decent challenger to the eminently vulnerable Kirsten Gillibrand.

New York Republicans have long been an ideological anomaly. But state elephants are out of step this time around for largely parochial political reasons. For years, the state Republican structure was dominated by the fiefdoms of Al D’Amato and Joe Bruno, who amassed vast personal power but didn’t cultivate a forward-looking electoral farm system. “New York is a city and state of immigrants,” says Mike Balboni, a Republican and a former state legislator who has endorsed Democrat Andrew Cuomo for governor. “So are we running Chinese candidates? Korean candidates? Are we developing a Caribbean presence? Russians? Not one of those things has happened.”

Next week, New York Republicans should pick up congressional seats; they could also regain a narrow edge in the State Senate and shatter Sheldon Silver’s veto-proof Assembly majority. Yet the party’s statewide losing streak is likely to grow even longer: It hasn’t elected a comptroller since 1990, an attorney general since 1994, or a governor since 2002, when George Pataki won a third term. Dan Donovan, the Staten Island Republican candidate for attorney general, may get a late lift from the Aqueduct scandal. But both Donovan and Harry Wilson, the wealthy former hedge-fund manager running for comptroller, have been trailing in polls all fall.

Voters show less allegiance to parties than ever, but Faso thinks the long-term answer is for state Republicans to find candidates who provide a clear and rational conservative alternative. Whatever the philosophical and strategic solution, though, even New York’s Democrats should root for state Republicans to get their act together sometime soon. It would be nice to believe New York keeps electing Democrats because they’ve done such a brilliant job of running the state; ruinous deficits and a string of corruption scandals suggest other factors are at work, like New York’s being a last vestige of ­labor-union electoral influence. Cuomo is going to win big on Election Day. But a little serious competition would have improved his chances of being a good governor when he arrives in Albany.

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The Republicans Who Can’t Win