New York Republicans lose their foil

ALBANY, N.Y. — It was their best chance in a decade to claw back control of Albany: An incumbent governor crippled by scandal, under state and federal investigation and haunted by the same “Cuomo fatigue” his father faced a quarter century earlier.

Instead, New York Republicans might face a history-making woman with a moderate record, upstate birth certificate and thick Rolodex built up over six years working politicians, business owners and local leaders all over the state. Even the party says its new opponent is formidable.

The implosion of Andrew Cuomo — the three-term governor who went from national stardom to unemployed and possibly homeless in less than a year — further damaged an already-fractured Democratic Party in New York. It could be equally jarring for the state’s Republicans, who had an unlikely but conceivable path to victory with Cuomo facing a bruising primary in 2022.

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, set to become governor on Aug. 24, announced on Thursday she intends to run for reelection next year. Many think she can win. And even the GOP state party chair, Nick Langworthy, thinks Hochul should be taken seriously. He says she has a knack for on the ground campaigning that others — Cuomo included — lack.

“She shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of her skills as a politician,” Langworthy said in an interview Thursday. “She’s one of the best retail politicians I’ve ever seen. She will go places that other elected leaders will not.”

Republicans already have a presumed nominee in Rep. Lee Zeldin, the four-term member of Congress from Long Island. Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is also running an insurgent campaign, alongside a handful of others who are hoping for a competitive primary despite the party’s open preference for Zeldin.

The state GOP, which hasn’t won a statewide election in nearly two decades, is a shadow of what it once was in New York. About 6.7 million registered Democrats hold a heavy advantage over about 2.9 million Republicans. And more New Yorkers — about 3 million — have now chosen to register with no affiliated party.

“The events of the past few days have clearly changed the dynamic,” Siena College pollster Steve Greenberg said. “Andrew Cuomo, for the Republicans, was the boogeyman. You don’t have to go back years, just go back in the last 30-60 days. How many of their statements have been about anything other than Andrew Cuomo?“

But Langworthy — who, like Hochul, is from the Buffalo area — sees a path. Hochul, he notes, has been evolving since her stint in Congress more than a decade ago and, prior to that, as a local official in Western New York. He pointed to the fact that she was endorsed by the NRA during her congressional campaign but now backs New York’s strict gun control laws. Her policies are hard to nail down, he says, because she will “ebb and flow and twist and turn to be a chameleon, whatever her surroundings are.“

Hochul on Wednesday said she was “not aware of any of the allegations whatsoever” in Attorney General Tish James’s report detailing 11 accusations of sexual harassment against Cuomo. She also said anyone who was implicated in that report will not be a part of her new administration.

Langworthy and other Republicans say they plan to use the lieutenant governor’s political fluidity to imply, with no evidence, that she was aware of the allegations — or at least the culture that kept them secret — before they became public.

“Typically, when I’m home in Buffalo, I hear how powerful she is. But then, yesterday, it’s, ‘I had nothing to do with this,’” Langworthy said. “’I was out cutting ribbons and going to pizza parties.’ Which is it? Are you prepared to lead the state? Were you making governmental decisions, or were you just a mascot for the administration?”

That’s the messaging that Republican consultant William F. B. O’Reilly said he expects from contenders looking to repurpose their Cuomo attacks and use them on Hochul.

“Andrew Cuomo’s departure takes a lot of issues off the table, but it can still be argued that a change in direction is needed,” O’Reilly, who has advised a number of statewide candidates, said. “To pull that off, Gov. Hochul will have to be painted as an extension of Cuomo’s 11-year reign, not someone new and fresh. That’s an effort likely to begin sooner rather than later.”

That had begun even before James released her report. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino in March raised the question of Hochul’s knowledge of the allegations or the administration’s toxic culture and the state’s Covid-19 response, which remains under investigation. Astorino, who lost to Cuomo in 2014 but has continued his campaign despite the party’s support for Zeldin, said there is little difference in campaigning against Hochul or Cuomo because it’s a singular system, he said.

“The stain of Albany is on all of them and the stain of Cuomo is on all of them,” he said. Cuomo’s reputation “is not something that is a shocker to anybody in New York State.”

Zeldin says he remains confident that his own name recognition rivals that of Hochul, who was relatively unknown among the general public until Cuomo’s resignation announcement on Tuesday.

The prospect of facing an opponent — Hochul or not — who does not have an $18 million warchest like Cuomo comes as a bit of a relief. As far as GOP gubernatorial candidates go, Zeldin’s been the most accomplished fundraiser in years, but with a little more than $3 million on hand, he would have struggled to compete.

“There likely will be a competitive Democratic primary and we’re going to continue to be able to develop a massive fundraising advantage over our opponent as opposed to what has so far been us having to play catch up,” he said.

Hochul’s aides declined to comment for this story.

The younger Giuliani, famous for delivering the mayoral oath of office along with his father when he was 7, has been doing a fair bit of old-fashioned retail campaigning himself. He said it’s still too early to be concerned about having to face Hochul or having to share potential voters with more a centrist Democrat.

“It’s an unknown,” he said. “It might be Hochul who’s the nominee, it might be James. I’ve even heard Bill de Blasio is thinking about it.“

And if it is Hochul, Giuliani said, he remains skeptical she stays a moderate. It wouldn’t “surprise me if she ended up pushing some more Democratic socialist policies to ingratiate herself to the Democratic base.”

If Hochul doesn’t shift to the left, and manages to win a Democratic primary while holding on to more moderate positions, she would indeed be a troublesome opponent for Republicans next fall, O’Reilly said. Much more troublesome, he added, than a Democratic candidate “from the hard political left who’s more city-centric.”

“That would make any general race a heck of a lot easier,” O’Reilly said.

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