The Rochester Wrangle: Floor Fight At Republican Convention Leaves Three Standing

By midnight last Thursday, most of the Republican establishment in New York State—the county chairmen waltzing in after a friendly

By midnight last Thursday, most of the Republican establishment in New York State—the county chairmen waltzing in after a friendly dinner at the nearby Black and Blue Steak and Crab, along with the operatives who had grimly signed on for yet another round of longshot campaigns in a state that remains one of the most Democratic in the nation—was safely inside Legends, the downstairs bar at the Radisson Hotel in Rochester. Sipping beer, and spinning reporters, they eyed each other warily. In a few short hours the bleary-eyed contingent would gather again—this time on the floor of the Rochester Convention Center, a few flights up and a “skywalk” over from the Radisson—for that most of political endeavors. A convention-floor flight was in the offing. The result would determine who would carry the flag and soul of the party in the November elections.

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The race in question was for the right to run against Kirsten Gillibrand for the state’s junior Senate seat. Ms. Gillibrand, a one-term member of Congress when she was plucked by Gov. David Paterson to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton, has displayed a remarkable agility to dissuade would-be challengers from running against her. In the past three years, everyone from Mort Zuckerman to Diana Taylor to Steve Israel to Harold Ford to Scott Stringer had looked at those poll numbers and seen someone still unknown—or worse, unapproved—by a substantial number of New York voters and began to picture themselves in the U.S. Senate.

But each had decided that challenging an incumbent Democrat in New York was unwise, a decision sometimes helped along by Ms. Gillibrand’s apparent willingness to show them the door. The most recent of these entrants was Marc Cenedella, a Republican web entrepreneur who had the right profile—youth, business background, the willingness to finance a substantial amount of the $40 million necessary to run out of his own pocket. When “an opponent of Mr. Cenedella” alerted The New York Times to a series of racy blog posts that appeared under his name a decade ago, posts that, among other things, encouraged women to denote one day a year when they could ply the men in the lives with steak and oral niceties.

After one news cycle went by without a sufficient response, Mr. Cenedella’s candidacy was declared dead, and he dropped out shortly thereafter.

Which meant that Republicans were left to choose between George Maragos, the comptroller of Nassau County and the kind of plodder who had been campaigning for the seat for nearly a year; Wendy Long, a lawyer from Manhattan who proudly boasted of her friendship with conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham and her days as a law clerk to Clarence Thomas; and Joe Carvin, who could perhaps best be thought of as a Marc Cenedella without the Internet cachet and who had the same team of high-priced Manhattan operatives shepherding his effort as Mr. Cenedella did.

But Mr. Carvin’s campaign was not long for this world, not when Bob Turner suggested that he would make the commute to Rochester and vie for the nomination himself. The Queens congressman became something of a cult hero in conservative circles when he won a special election in a 3-1 Democratic district that had Anthony Weiner as its representative before he started live-tweeting photos of his genitalia.

But until a few days before voting was slated to start, Mr. Turner was still determined to run for re-election to his House seat; then, a federal judge—placed in charge of the state’s decennial redistricting process due to the Legislature’s inertia—drew a congressional map that eviscerated Mr. Turner’s district, placing his base in the Democratic-heavy neighborhoods of southeastern Queens now represented by Gregory Meeks.

“Three days ago I had a congressional seat to defend and now we don’t,” Mr. Turner told The Observer when he first appeared on the floor of the Rochester Convention Center. “If I want to use the fight in me and the knowledge and the base of support I have productively to fight in November, this is the only outlet for me.”

When asked why he doesn’t just run for Congress again, since he has proved himself a Democratic world-beater before, Mr. Turner’s voice grew sharper.

“Have you checked it?” he said. “I think you ought to.”

There was a sense among the conventioneers that the vote was already rigged for Mr. Turner, that Ed Cox, the chairman of the New York Republican Party, was quietly working for him behind the scenes. These suspicions were fanned by the fact that Conservative Party—the tail that wags the Republican dog in New York, with their boast that despite having only 2 percent of registered voters in the state they have backed every successful Republican office-seeker since 1974—had already thrown its support to Ms. Long. Ever since Mr. Cox became chairman, the Conservative Party, with its roots in the far-right precincts of upstate and the outer boroughs—has delighted in tweaking the chairman, whose pedigree includes a White House wedding to Tricia Nixon.

Suspicions were further flamed when Mr. Carvin dropped out on the eve of the convention and his political team went to go work for Mr. Turner. The same team, led by operatives Bill O’Reilly and O.B. Murray, had previously engineered his upstart congressional bid, and both served as paid advisers to Mr. Cox.

Mr. Carvin still worked the floor of the convention, laying the groundwork for a future bid for office, but he looked stunned at the reversal of fortune, at the fact that all his friends had suddenly left him. When reporters approached him, he spoke barely above a whisper.

To make it on to the ballot, contenders needed to get 25 percent of the weighted vote on the convention floor; if one of them got 50 percent, he became the party’s official designee, which counted for little more than bragging rights.

As the vote approached, the teams of operatives began trying to sway county chairmen, who are often able to convince their delegates to vote in a block. The chairmen typically care about more about winning local State Assembly and Senate races than statewide contests, and so the campaigns ply them with offers of campaign offices in their districts. Or pledge to have conservative celebrities campaign there. Or remind them of earlier times when they scratched their backs. Or, when all else fails, offer cash to refill their local coffers.

Commitments had been made by county chairmen in the weeks leading up to the vote, but just as the voting was set to get under way, Mr. Cox called some of the chairmen of the state’s biggest counties together on the floor of the convention to see if they could get to agree to a deal: Rig the vote so that each of the candidates get 33 percent of the convention delegates, which would allow all three of them to get on the ballot and let them fight it out for a contested primary among rank-and-file Republican voters in the state. Mr. Cox wasn’t there in person, however, so he deputized the chairman of Orange County to make the case for him. The other county chairmen revolted, as did the vote-counters for Ms. Long, who thought they were closing in on the 50 percent benchmark and weren’t ready to give any of their opponents a mulligan.

If Mr. Turner’s team was mostly populated by the kind of Silk Stocking Republicans close to the party’s monied establishment, Ms. Long’s campaign team had more of an upstate sheen, party stalwarts who spend their careers winning smaller races in deeply Republican territories instead of trying to bring moderate voters over to their side.

As the vote counting began in earnest, Mr. Maragos started losing altitude. His handlers began hearing hand-wringing apologies and tales of tied hands and last-minute obligations. The county parties that had once backed him through his hard slog over the course of his yearlong campaign quickly threw their weight behind either Mr. Turner or Ms. Long, both of whom boasted that they were nearing the 50 percent mark. The Turner camp mostly hung back, confident that Mr. Cox could provide them a boost if need be. When Mr. Turner got up to address the convention, rather than use the powers of persuasion to wrest any undecided delegates to his side, he apologized for his late entry into the race, and gave a meandering speech boasting of his support among Jewish voters and Wall Street financiers. (Ms. Long, meanwhile, lit into Ms. Gillibrand as a puppet of Chuck Schumer and a flip-flopper.) The Long camp unveiled a sophisticated operation, complete with headsets and spreadsheets to track the weighted vote.

In the end though they came up short. Mr. Turner’s confidence proved valid. Key counties like Westchester and Suffolk held their vote until they very end, then provided just enough support to keep Ms. Long below 50 percent and permit the other two candidates to get on the ballot.

“It was predetermined,” said one conventioneer. “Everyone knew it was bullshit. When it went down no one was surprised.”

And so now, the Republicans face the prospect of a bitter three-way primary and a election day that has been moved up to June, instead of September.

It sounds now as if they are now reconciling themselves to the fact that Ms. Gillibrand seems set to remain in the U.S. Senate for a very long time.

“Here this is our last chance to beat Gillibrand, and we are going to spend all spring kicking the shit out of each other,” said one GOP operative. “The only way to win a primary in New York is go to the right of each other, and if we do that, we lose in November, period.”

None of the campaigns are particularly flush at the moment, but each say that they can find a few wealthy donors to fund a super PAC. The Turner camp is hoping that Ms. Long proves unsuitable to the rigors of campaigning, and that her conservative social views are disqualifying; the Long camp intends to point out that those views are held by Mr. Turner as well, and think that Mr. Turner’s vision of himself as a right-wing hero will prove to be a mirage.

It remains a curious fact of Ms. Gillibrand’s career that despite the difficulty of unseating her, so many people—most of whom  have been successful in other endeavors in their lives and often made millions of dollars in the process—look at the voting patterns of the state and believe themselves to be the ones to beat her.

Even the campaign teams acknowledge that it would take a perfect storm to beat Ms. Gillibrand: hit her on gas prices, Obamacare, a congressional scorecard that named her the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, and hope that somehow she stumbles along the way.

But they hold out hope.

“I think she’s beatable,” said an adviser to one of the campaigns. “Whether she gets beaten, who knows?”

The Rochester Wrangle: Floor Fight At Republican Convention Leaves Three Standing