Ed Lurie was sipping wine at the end of a long bar off of Union Square on a recent Monday evening and contemplating the future of the Republican Party. “I guess if you have a father-in-law who was president of the United States,” he said, “yeah, you could say you were involved in the state party.” Mr. Lurie was referring to the 64-year-old white-shoe lawyer Ed Cox, who became the head of New York’s Republican Party in 2009 and whose 1971 Rose Garden wedding to President Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia was described by Life magazine as a union “akin to American royalty.” But until two years ago, Mr. Cox had, by his own admission, only a “tangential” relationship to party politics.
Mr. Lurie, on the other hand, is a party lifer. He got swept up in the Rockefeller mania of 1966, becoming the Teenage State Republican Party chairman, and stayed with the G.O.P. for the next four decades, including 10 years as the state party’s executive director. And now he is at the forefront of a roiling effort to oust Mr. Cox from his perch as head of the State Republican Party.
“What do they say-victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan?” he said. “Did we miss opportunities that we should have taken advantage of last November? I would say yes. I think a lot of people would say yes.”
Besides Mr. Lurie, at least a half-dozen other potential candidates are floating their names to take over as state chairman. There is Nick Langworthy, a young county chairman from Erie; Doug Colety, a longtime Westchester County leader; Liz Feld, a former mayor of Larchmont; and Myers Mermel, an ultra-wealthy former candidate for lieutenant governor. And there are still others that may emerge.
That so many are looking to depose Mr. Cox is a little odd. When he took over as chairman in 2009, declining to take a salary for the job, New York Republicans were at their lowest ebb. They held no statewide offices and their representation in Congress had been diminished to two seats. The State Senate, a Republican stronghold for 40 years, had flipped into Democratic hands. Demographic changes in the state meant that the party was facing permanent minority status.
But after Mr. Cox chased out of office Joe Mondello, a longtime and well-liked Nassau County clubhouse power broker, the G.O.P. quickly ousted two county executives in Democratic suburban strongholds. This November saw the Republicans retake six Congressional seats-more than any other state in the union-win back the State Senate and end the Democrats super-majority in the Assembly.
And almost as soon as the last votes were counted, Republicans began plotting how to unseat Mr. Cox. To some rank-and-file Republicans, Mr. Cox failed as a fund-raiser (a claim his aides vigorously dispute) and lacks the kind of brass-knuckled political know-how needed to rule a minority party. They say he lives too much in his family’s glorious (or not-so-glorious, as it were) past, willing to sacrifice the good of the party for the Nixon name, and they point to the Congressional run of his son, Chris Cox, which occurred concurrently with Ed Cox’s ascendancy as chairman.
For his part, Mr. Lurie doesn’t want to talk much about Mr. Cox. Intraparty battles get personal and bloody soon enough.
Mr. Cox is reticent to talk about the issue as well, but mostly because he hasn’t given his record much thought. Sitting in the upstairs office of the Metropolitan Republican Club, a red-brick mansion on East 83rd Street, he brings a long finger up to his face. “Ahhhh,” he said. “I haven’t really thought of assessing it.” He paused again. “I haven’t really thought of assessing it much at all.”
As party officials tapped away on keyboards in the corners of the room and the faces of candidates from long-lost races stared down from the campaign posters affixed to the walls, he went through his short tenure as state party chairman-the victories in the Legislature and in the county executives races. He recounted how the Senate majority leader, Dean Skelos, told him that “he never thought he would be in a position to cut aid to education. But he did it!” He described crucial polling the party undertook, late infusions of cash into crucial races that helped tip the balance.
“We added our bit,” he said. “By playing our role in all of these ways, I think the state party is now back.” Like his father-in-law, Mr. Cox has a rare ability to inspire an almost nameless, vitriolic animus among his detractors. When he ran for state chairman, to his supporters he brought a touch of glamour to the grubby precincts of horse-trading politics. To the longtime party operatives from less privilege, he was the blue blood who swooped to the front of the parade by trading on the Nixon name without spending a day toiling in the vineyards of state politics. To them, the party’s historic victories in November happened in spite of Mr. Cox, not because of him.
There is some truth to this. Faced with the uninspiring Rick Lazio as the gubernatorial nominee, Mr. Cox set out to recruit Steve Levy-the Suffolk County executive and a Democrat-to switch parties and run in his stead. It was, in many respects, an inspired move. Mr. Levy had $4 million in the bank and a conservative record, and would force Andrew Cuomo to pay attention to his base. A stronger party chairman may have been able to pull it off, but Mr. Cox, the political neophyte, was unable to shove Mr. Lazio aside. A civil war erupted, and the monstrously unelectable Carl Paladino became the G.O.P.’s gubernatorial nominee. All six statewide candidates were defeated, and with them, the Republican’s best hope for the foreseeable future of winning statewide. “It was an embarrassment,” said Eric Ulrich, a councilman from Queens. “Ed lost control of the process.”
Now Andrew Cuomo has shown no signs of slowing down, and down-ballot Democrats stand to benefit. Retrenchment is inevitable among some of the legislative seats, and demographic trends look likely to continue the Democrats’ way.
And all of that overshadows what may be the biggest problem facing Republicans right now: former party luminaries who have now entered the private sector and seem more concerned with making money than with electing Republicans, and who, Republicans say, have that instinctual dislike of Mr. Cox.
“This is the real story of the State Republican Party right now, and one no one will write about,” said a party operative aligned with Mr. Cox. “The guys we made kings of New York have turned their backs on us.”
Republicans say that Governor George Pataki has shown little interest in keeping the state party strong, and, more critically, point to Al D’Amato’s standing onstage alongside Kirsten Gillibrand the day she was named to the U.S. Senate. Without Mr. D’Amato, now a big-deal lobbyist, corralling his rolodex for Republicans, the state party has no chance of a comeback.
“He goes on TV like he’s a spokesman for the Republican Party, but he is really just a spokesman for the D’Amato Party,” said one operative. “How can you blame him? This is a Democratic state. He needs to deal with winners.” Mr. D’Amato declined to comment for this article.
Mr. Cox names no names, but said that there were too many elements in the party that had grown content with losing. His job was to get rid of them. “When you have a party that is not on the move, you have a lot of people just doing well off it, working to the detriment of the party. You have got to clean those elements out.”
His opponents say it’s hogwash. The problem, they say, is Mr. Cox, who still hasn’t figured out how to operate the party machinery or rebuild its infrastructure. The race to be the next chairman has, unofficially, already begun, with outreach under way to the 398 members of the state committee who will decide who shall lead them. Another bloody civil war, though, could drag the party’s prospects down further in what could be a very difficult election year.
Mr. Cox said he is ready and, as he does regularly, sprinkles his rhetoric with a mention of you-know-who.
“I am just trying to get something done,” he said. “When I look at the hits my father-in-law took, I say this is nothing.”
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