6.24.2008

The last throes of New York's Republican Party

Few storyline have been more powerful this election year than the death march of New York's once-dominant Republican Party. The state's GOP was already reduced to a very weak position in 2006, when Democrats conquered the governorship, 3 House seats and got close to seizing the state Senate. That the party would playing for its survival in 2008 has long been obvious: a special election victory left Democrats one seat away from the state Senate and NY-25, NY-26 and NY-29 are on everyone's list of vulnerable Republican-held House seats. In fact, NY-25 is arguably the district that is the most likely to switch parties in the country.

The Vito Fossella saga in NY-13 only worsened the situation for New York Republicans, as the Staten Island congressman's arrest on DWI charges and subsequent announcement that he would not run for re-election left the GOP scrambling to keep their last NYC seat. The party's contrasting recruitment fortunes looked to have ensured Democratic take-over when the race took an even more tragic turn this week-end with news that the candidate endorsed by Republicans -- Francis Powers -- had passed away, leaving the GOP with no one to run in this district.

Over the past two days, Staten Island Republicans have tried their best to find a replacement for Powers, a relatively unknown figure whose main advantage was his pledge to donate $500,000 to his own campaign. A series of high-profile Republicans (District Attorney Donovan, state Senator Lanza and city councilman Odda) who had already declined to run last month refused once again, leading the GOP down its second walk of shame in as many month. It will take a few more days for Republicans to sort out the mess. The most often mentioned candidates are NY1 reporter Lisa Giovinazzo and state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Maltese (who would have to resign before taking the first step of a political campaign). Former Assemblyman Matt Mirones, who might be able to self-fund his candidacy, is also being mentioned.

Complicating the GOP's efforts is that they would have to start the entire petition process anew if Powers had not finished collecting the 1250 signatures needed to get on the ballot. If he had, the GOP can just replace his slot but if he hasn't time is pressing before the July 10th deadline. In fact, it looks like Republicans are so worried about this seat that speculation is now rising that the GOP might endorse the Democratic candidate Mike McMahon! That's right, Republicans might simply give up on a seat that was barely on the radar screen two months ago... and while they would presumably ask for something in exchange, the loss of a seat Democrats would be almost assured of keeping for a long time would be an awfully high price to pay.

As if the possible loss of four out of six House seats was not enough, Republicans are now contemplating the almost assured loss of the state Senate, their last bastion in New York politics. Democrats have been waging an intense war to reclaim the chamber for many cycles now, but the resilience of entrenched Republican incumbent who have been serving for decades in districts that are now blue has prevented Democrats from making as solid gains as they might have expected. But as a number of these long-time state Senators was considering retiring this cycle and last, it took the insistence of Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno to convince them to say on board and fight to keep the majority.

Even with Bruno's success at keeping incumbents from retiring, his rule was hanging by a thread and Democrats were looking to pick up the remaining seat in November. But the news yesterday that Joe Bruno was retiring was as unexpected as it is consequential. Perhaps moved by corruption probes and perhaps unwilling to stay in the probable minority, Bruno announced he was calling it quits and he is already being replaced as the Majority Leader.

This makes it that much more difficult for Republicans to survive. Not only will they have to defend Bruno's old district (and given how much difficulty the party has defending anything in New York, no retention is assured) but the party has lost its one statewide leader and the one who kept the party motivated and focused on the prize. With Bruno's departure, it is very possible that a number of other state Senators representing very difficult districts for the Republicans to hold but who had only stayed at Bruno's urging will join him and announce their retirement in the coming days, leading to a game of musical chairs and opening the door for Democrats to complete their take-over.

Come 2009, Democrats could control all levels of New York's political world, including as many as 27 of its 29 House seats. It is ironic that the office that seems to be the most competitive is also the highest in the state, as the 2010 gubernatorial race already looks to be heating up as one of the hottest in the country. David Paterson is emerging as a popular governor and the names of Andrew Cuomo, Mike Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton are are being thrown in the mix (remember when the three latter politicians were supposed to face-off in this year's presidential race?). But for now, Democrats are surely happy at the turn of events and the increasing likelihood that they will take over NY-13 and the state Senate.

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