Back in 1994, Alfonse D’Amato took George Pataki by the hand and led him out of oblivion—or, rather, Peekskill—and into the Governor’s Mansion. The Republican Party won its first gubernatorial election since Nelson Rockefeller’s final victory in 1970, and the party’s prospects looked bright.
Twelve years later, the party is in complete disarray and the Democrats are poised for not an election but a coronation in November. Many of the power brokers of yesterday are either absent from the scene, or they’ve given up.
And so, last Sunday night, the Republican Party’s onetime Virgil stood amid a group of Democratic lawmakers to anoint Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, as “the next Governor” of New York State.
Mr. D’Amato has abandoned the dying for the living, which is not so surprising given that he makes his living as a lobbyist these days. But the former Senator’s endorsement of Mr. Spitzer is a sure indication that the G.O.P. pulse is shallow and irregular.
“They say that prayer is powerful,” said Mr. D’Amato. “This is the time when the state Republicans should be doing a lot of praying.”
If it’s not too late already. With less than a month to go before the party’s state convention on Long Island, the party hasn’t rallied around a candidate à la Mr. Pataki in 1994. According to one recent poll, G.O.P. voters prefer Mr. Spitzer to the two Republican candidates for Governor, William Weld and John Faso.
Gone are the days when Mr. D’Amato and Republican state chair Bill Powers could summon the energy, power and resources to take out a Democratic lion like Mario Cuomo. Even with Mr. Pataki stepping down, creating an open seat, the Republicans haven’t been able to produce either a well-known, credible candidate or a lesser-known but surprisingly dogged challenger, like the 1994 version of Mr. Pataki.
Instead, disparate leaders go their separate ways with their separate candidates—if they even bother to summon enough energy to seem interested. There is no D’Amato-like figure demanding party discipline, even when faced with a looming electoral disaster.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno announced that he was withholding a public endorsement in the Governor’s race, but acknowledged that he would work at the convention to get his preferred candidate, Mr. Faso, onto the ballot. His resistance to Mr. Weld all but guarantees a primary for the party’s nomination. (The Democrats themselves face a primary in the Governor’s race, with Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi challenging Mr. Spitzer.)
Mr. Bruno, of course, has some experience when it comes to pulling the plug on woeful Republican candidacies. He is largely credited with acting behind the scenes to put Jeanine Pirro’s brief Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton out of its misery.
Mr. Weld has his backers too, but the big-name endorsements that he surely expected as Republican front-runner have yet to materialize.
Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is credited with persuading Mr. Weld, a former governor of Massachusetts, to try his hand in New York politics, and Mr. Weld reasonably expected the type of endorsement that Mr. Giuliani gave to Michael Bloomberg in 2001. But Sunny Mindel, Mr. Giuliani’s spokeswoman, said on Monday that the former Mayor and possible Presidential candidate would not make an endorsement in the primary.
Mr. Pataki is also believed to be rooting, silently, for Mr. Weld. But his spokesman, David Catalfamo, said that while the Governor hadn’t ruled out an endorsement before the convention, he “believes that the candidates should be out there making the case.”
In fact, the endorsements that Mr. Weld has racked up have arguably caused him more harm than good. In April, he guaranteed himself a spot on the ballot by seeking the line of the Libertarian Party, which has just 798 members statewide and backed Howard Stern in 1994.
“It’s not good for the Republican Party,” said Mike Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party and a supporter of Mr. Faso. “Which direction are we going to go in? That’s the fight here.” No Republican has won a statewide race without the Conservative Party nomination in years.
“The difference between today and 12 years ago is that we had Cuomo,” said Mr. Faso, noting that the party was able to come together in an effort to defeat a common enemy. “We were determined and couldn’t bear another four years.”
Mr. Faso should know. In 1994, he stepped down as a candidate for State Comptroller, leaving the spot open for Herb London, who would otherwise have run a primary against Mr. Pataki. Mr. Faso’s decision helped clear the way for Mr. Pataki, who went on to easily defeat another primary challenger, Richard Rosenbaum, a former state chairman from Rochester.
Primaries can help strengthen candidates and their name recognition. But for the most part, politicians prefer to avoid them, for they often leave bitter feelings and a divided party in their wake. A bitter Republican primary between Mr. Faso and Mr. Weld wouldn’t exactly help the party for the general election.
“Why spend money fighting each other when it is an uphill battle against the Democrats anyway, and why polarize the party and sometimes leave bad feelings as a result?” said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the independent Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “Sptizer is so much the odds-on favorite. All signs point to the Democrats right now—[a Republican primary] makes it all the more difficult, all the more problematic.”
In fact, the Faso and Weld camps already are sharpening their knives. Mr. Weld’s supporters point out that Mr. Faso, a former Assemblyman, made his living as a lobbyist after leaving state government in 2002. In the wake of lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s alleged efforts to corrupt public officials, Weld partisans argue that Mr. Faso is unelectable.
Mr. Faso, who ended all his lobbying activities upon entering the race, makes “no apologies” for the work he did as a lawyer, he said. Officials in his camp note that Mr. Weld also registered as a lobbyist for the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. Mr. Faso and many in the party feel that Mr. Weld’s positions are out of touch with working-class conservative New Yorkers. His critics have already lampooned Mr. Weld as an opportunist for seeking the Libertarian line.
An April 28 letter sent to Mr. Weld by five county chairs argued that he “could create serious political problems for each and every Republican candidate for years to come.”
State G.O.P. chair Stephen J. Minarik III, who supports Mr. Weld and Ms. Pirro, seems inclined to move the party to the center on social and cultural issues. But his early nod has angered even some of Mr. Weld’s supporters, who argue that the endorsement smacks of backroom politics and stymies healthy debate within the party. And, needless to say, Mr. Faso’s allies aren’t very happy either.
“It’s contrary to the platform [Mr. Minarik] announced when he was selected as chairman. It was not going to be a top-down organization; it was going to be grass-roots up,” said Michael O’Connor, the chairman of the Warren County G.O.P. and a supporter of Mr. Faso. “I think it is time, all the way around, for the kingmakers to step aside.”
But too much hangs in the balance for the reigning Republican guard to just walk away. Mr. Pataki’s legacy and fledgling Presidential ambitions depend on how his party fares this year. Sharply contested State Senate races threaten Mr. Bruno’s leadership and have put Mr. Minarik’s reputation—and perhaps his job—on the line.
Long Time Coming
The current chaos has been months in the making.
First, the party tried to put Ms. Pirro forward as a candidate against Mrs. Clinton. She bailed out after a ridiculed but short campaign, and chose instead to run for Attorney General. That campaign has not picked up any momentum either.
As for a current Senate hopeful, former Mayor John Spencer is involved in a scandal involving his personal life and now seems no more a threat to Mrs. Clinton than Ms. Pirro was.
Mr. Weld’s candidacy took an early hit too, when a financial scandal erupted at a Kentucky trade school in which he served as C.E.O. What’s more, he and Mr. D’Amato have engaged in a bitter personal feud.
While Mr. Weld lost steam, the well-funded Spitzer campaign kept rolling on.
“The fact is that we have had a Republican Governor for 12 years—people have gotten content. Everyone is going off after their own thing; everybody forgot how they got there,” said Peter Savago, the chairman of Ulster County Republican Party, who is supporting Mr. Weld. “You’ve got to have an organization that operates 12 months out of the year, not just five months before the convention.”
Mr. O’Connor argued that the Governor also kept the party in limbo by waiting too long to decide whether or not he would pursue a fourth term in office.
“There are other people who I thought might get involved with it—Giuliani and Golisano,” he said, referring to Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano, a longtime antagonist to Mr. Pataki. “They got sidelined; Spitzer was left alone to run around.”
Mr. Catalfamo, the Governor’s spokesman, dismissed such complaints, saying that Mr. Pataki had given plenty of notice.
Another key piece of the Republican puzzle is Mr. Bloomberg. Many political commentators believe the Mayor might consider endorsing Mr. Spitzer—just as Mr. Giuliani endorsed Mr. Cuomo over Mr. Pataki in 1994. But perhaps that is wishful thinking by Democrats. One Bloomberg official said that an endorsement of Mr. Weld was “well within the realm of possibility.”
Mr. Weld’s underdog position against Mr. Spitzer could, after all, make him much more likely to make promises to the city in exchange for the Mayor’s support. According to this logic, Mr. Spitzer’s high numbers would make him less inclined to grant the city concessions. Also, with the state coffers pretty much bare, it is not clear exactly how a Spitzer governorship would directly benefit the city.
Then there are Mr. Bloomberg’s plans to take into account. If he is thinking of running for another office in 2012, as his aides continue to hint, an endorsement for a Republican couldn’t hurt, and he would avoid crossing political lines. Nevertheless, it is questionable how wise it would be to oppose Mr. Spitzer, especially when he seems so strong.
But for now, Republicans still don’t know who their candidate will be, and many county leaders are growing frustrated with the oblique nature of the party’s leadership.
“We have elections, we don’t have coronations,” said Mr. Faso, who conceded that the Republicans were not generating much activity at the grass-roots level and that many in the party wished for “a magic wand to solve their problems.”
“I don’t think it is good for us,” said Robert Smith, the chairman of the Onondaga County Republican Party and a Faso supporter. “If this is going to be the new process, I don’t think it helps.”