The GOP in New York: Going the Way of the Dinosaurs?


The first special congressional election of the Obama administration took place March 31 in a Republican corner of Democratic New York. But the race in the Hudson River Valley for the seat of newly minted Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand produced no immediate winner. It remains undecided and will be settled in the days ahead after the count of several thousand absentee ballots.

For the time being, that denies Democrats the opportunity to claim voter approval of the Obama agenda or Republicans the chance to argue their party is on the comeback trail.

Yet as important as the outcome of the special election is to each of the parties nationally, it is just as significant for New York Republicans, as they seek to rebound from what is arguably their lowest point in history.

Through much of the last century, Empire State Republicans defined a whole wing of the GOP. There were “Wall Street Republicans,” then “Rockefeller Republicans,” named in honor of the state’s pugnacious, long-serving governor, who combined moderation on social issues with a penchant for big government projects. In short, a Rockefeller Republican was a liberal Republican.

A half century or so ago, when Nelson Rockefeller was in his heyday, New York Republicans battled with their Democratic counterparts on even terms. But nowadays, even a sense of competitiveness is a distant memory. The GOP has not won a Senate race in New York since 1992, a presidential contest since 1984, or held a majority of seats in the U.S. House delegation since 1962. The partisan breakdown of House seats after the 2008 election looked like a typo: 26 Democrats, 3 Republicans.

As for liberal Republicans, they are essentially extinct. The farthest left that the Republican Party currently goes is “moderate,” and that too is considered to be a dying breed in a party defined by degrees of conservatism.

Essentially, the shift within the New York GOP came in 1980. As Ronald Reagan was redefining the Republican Party nationally, New York Republicans were also taking a turn to the right. In the GOP Senate primary that year, conservative Long Island township supervisor Alfonse D’Amato took on the remaining pillar of the Rockefeller wing of the state party, Jacob Javits. At first glance, D’Amato did not seem to have a chance against the four-term senator. But he effectively charged that Javits was too old (76), too ill–the incumbent had a progressive motor neuron disease–and too liberal. Backed by a number of Republican county organizations in the populous New York City area, D’Amato defeated Javits with a solid 56 percent of the primary vote.

That fall, D’Amato captured Javits’ seat, with the failing senator–on the ballot as the Liberal Party nominee–finishing a distant third. The New York Republican Party has had a conservative face ever since.

It is a brand, though, that seems to be less and less relevant in a state known for its demographic diversity and large urban population. In the last few years, Republicans have lost their remaining beachheads in the state–the governorship in 2006 and the state Senate in 2008. In the process, they have also lost their traditional bases of support in the suburbs of New York City and the more rural upstate region. Together, these two areas once offered the GOP a counterweight to the hefty Democratic advantage in New York City. But that is not the case these days.

The shocking decline of the Republican Party in New York was evident in last fall’s voting for president and Congress.

Barack Obama easily defeated John McCain in New York City, its suburbs and upstate. He swamped his Republican rival by nearly 40 percentage points in the New York City metropolitan area, home to a clear majority of Empire State voters, en route to carrying the state by more than 25 points.

At the congressional level, the GOP emerged from the 2008 election holding just one of the 19 House seats in New York City and its suburbs (that of Peter King on Long Island), and just two of 10 seats upstate.

The big problem for Republicans is their weak condition is not limited to New York, but is symptomatic of their plight throughout the Northeast. They hold only four of the region’s 24 Senate seats, just 18 of its 95 House seats, and have not carried a single Northeastern state in the last five presidential elections with the exceptions of New Hampshire in 2000 and West Virginia from 2000 on. And the latter is not even considered to be a part of the region by many people.

If Republicans hope to become a force again in the Northeast, it will have to include a major revival in New York, the largest state in the region. They could have an opening in 2010, with an unelected governor (David Paterson) and an appointed senator (Gillibrand) poised to lead the Democratic ticket.

But to rebuild the party for the long term, New York Republicans must begin regaining terrain that they once held. In that regard, this special House election in Gillibrand’s former district (the New York 20th) presents them with a golden opportunity. Republicans enjoy a registration advantage of more than 60,000 over the Democrats, and held the seat for years before Gillibrand won it in 2006.

Yet only a handful of votes may ultimately separate the two candidates when all the ballots for the special election are counted. On April 3, the state election board posted totals showing that the vote was literally tied: 77,225 votes for Democrat Scott Murphy, a venture capitalist and political newcomer; and 77,225 votes for Republican James Tedisco, minority leader in the state Assembly.

But political perception is at stake, and can be tipped one way or the other by even a very close outcome. If the final tally later this month shows a GOP victory, the party can claim that it has set the process of revival in motion. A Republican loss, on the other hand, could spur talk that the already feeble New York GOP has not hit bottom yet.