Is there a road back for the Empire State’s Grand Old Party?
“Liberal New York” is a phrase that rolls easily off the tongue. Yet despite the fact that left-leaning policy has long defined the state’s governance, its Republican Party has wielded considerable influence. Within the past 25 years, New York has been run by GOP Governor George Pataki and New York City by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and until only two years ago, the party held a majority in the state Senate.
Yet in a political age defined increasingly by polarization, any of those scenarios seem difficult to imagine in the foreseeable future. As of last year, the party’s enrollment had dropped by 18,000 statewide, while Democrats had picked up 270,000 since 2016. A string of retirements by Republican state senators and long-serving Congressman Peter King ahead of the 2020 elections has not make the picture brighter. Rep. King’s seat, as well as that of Rep. Lee Zeldin, who is seeking reelection, were once thought to be GOP safeholds, but are now the site of highly competitive races.
Party leaders have not lost hope. Even as President Donald Trump remains highly unpopular downstate, they have lined up a slate that they hope will narrow the gap in Albany and have rolled out rising stars like Staten Island and south Brooklyn Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis to fight to reclaim lost congressional seats.
New York GOP chairman Nick Langworthy, by dint of his job, has studied the map district by district and has been a steady cheerleader about prospects in November elections.
“There are a lot of battlegrounds,” he said. “New Yorkers know what’s on the line with this election and we have an outstanding array of candidates.”
But his task remains an uphill struggle, tagged by questions of how the party went from feisty underdog to longshot and what its road back might look like.
Where Have All the Republicans Gone?
Party strategists and outside observers alike pin the lion’s share of the Empire State GOP’s setbacks to demographic changes. Middle- and upper-income white families, who have long been the party’s mainstay, have left the state in droves and many of its older supporters have passed on. Much of this migration, which is largely to lower tax states like Florida or the Carolinas, works against the GOP’s support at the polls, but feeds into one of its key talking points. After the COVID pandemic and a sharp spike in violent crime quickly heralded a sizable exodus of upwardly mobile people from the city, the party’s enrollment has likely been further hurt.
Especially downstate, groups that made up the Republican base have been replaced by blacks and Hispanics with a strong historic leaning towards Democrats and young white urban liberals have been a major drive behind New York City’s recent lurch to the far left.
“The New York that elected Pataki and Rudy Giuliani was a much different state,” said Republican strategist Tom Doherty, who served in the Pataki administration. “Those elections were not that long after Ronald Reagan won New York in 1984. Even then, the state had a much higher ratio of Democrats, and the only way to win was for a Cuomo or a Dinkins to do a really bad job, but now it’s not just a matter of Republicans and Democrats, the Democrats in the state are much more liberal.”
The state has obviously seen generational change in the past and, in the 1980s, young adherents of the “Reagan generation” blew new life into what was becoming an outdated northeastern Republican party in the state. Yet Timothy Kneeland, a professor of history and political science at Nazareth College in Rochester, felt the problems the present demographic shift has brought pose a deep problem for the GOP.
“In a world where people are less likely to settle down and start families until they are in their mid-30s, 18- to 29-year-olds are not yet invested in the economy, and Republican issues like lower taxes and law and order don’t speak to them,” he said.
The Trump Card
However divisive American politics became during the Obama presidency and rise of the Tea Party, the era defined by battles between loyal supporters of President Trump and those who viciously oppose him has left the nation exponentially more polarized. Nowhere is the phenomenon more pronounced than in New York City where the leadership has identified itself as part of the self-styled “resistance” to the administration. While not quite as fierce, Albany has hardly taken a friendly stance either. The tax reform bill backed by the President and a Republican Congress which capped deductions for state and local taxes, a major money saver in high-tax states like New York, created another hurdle to maintaining, much less growing the GOP there.
“The demographic changes are daunting, but not prohibitive. Remember that Giuliani won areas that were five to one Democrats to Republicans, but it’s going to be difficult to do things like that while Trump is in the White House,” said William F. B. O’Reilly, a GOP consultant and Newsday opinion columnist. “The tension is so high right now and everybody is parked in their ideological corners.”
For much of the 20th century, through the early 1970s, New York and much of the northeast was home to a “liberal” Republican Party defined by figures like former Governors Thomas Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller. Even as the national Republican Party went through significant shifts in the 1980s and ’90s, which gave more prominence to conservative positions on social issues, New York maintained a nuanced brand that emphasized fiscal conservatism.
Many see the increasingly right-wing and nationalist brand of the Republican Party with President Trump as its flag-bearer as a major challenge to New York’s GOP.
“The White House, and the rightward move nationally, kills the party here, especially when their message is, ‘Look how much New York is taking from Washington.’ It doesn’t matter that it’s not true, but that’s the message people are hearing. It helps the party in Kentucky, but it certainly doesn’t help here,” said Mr. Doherty. He added that in a state where efforts to attract Hispanics to the GOP’s rolls is essential, the President’s strong stand against illegal immigration has created yet another impediment.
A recent shift in the state party’s leadership, many feel, brought opportunities, but serious challenges as well. From 2009 until last year, the New York’s GOP was led by Ed Cox, a son-in-law of President Richard Nixon. He was an effective fundraiser and fit the patrician Manhattan-based mold the state’s party had long had. After a string of electoral defeats capped by loss of the state senate, Mr. Cox was replaced by Mr. Langworthy, a 39-year-old party operative from Buffalo, and an outspoken supporter of the Trump presidency.
“I was pleased to see Nick Langworthy take over. He’s young and savvy, but absolutely Trumpian. He’s having a hard enough time holding on to what he has, and I don’t see expansion happening,” said Professor Kneeland. “To really make a comeback in New York, I think the party’s going to need to go into the wilderness for 40 years and refigure out what they’re about.”
While the Trump factor is likely the key ingredient to higher enrollment and electoral successes for Democrats in liberal-leaning areas of the state, Mr. Langworthy was quick to push back against a narrative that paints it as a pure liability.
“There certainly are a lot of people in the state and maybe in the GOP who don’t support the President, but we’ve also seen a lot of energy that he’s brought which I think helped us in 2016 down the ballot,” he said.
Mr. Langworthy also mentioned that the White House was “there for us in our darkest hour,” pointing to relief efforts during the city’s crisis stage of the COVID pandemic when the federal government dispatched supplies of ventilators, protective equipment, and the USS Comfort hospital ship.
“The White House showed consistent dedication to New York, despite opposition from the Democratic apparatus here,” said Mr. Langworthy.
Enthusiasm for President Trump in the state is real. Out of its 62 counties, the President won 40 of them in 2016. The redness of the New York electoral map, though, comes largely from sparsely populated upstate and western regions. Hillary Clinton easily won New York with 4,556,124 to President Trump’s 2,819,534, drawing largely on votes from New York City and its suburbs, which account for the lion’s share of the population. Even so, the upstate-downstate divide is a reminder of the GOP’s geographic swaths of power in a state where the party still controls the vast majority of county governments.
“In the city and its suburbs, the national party has hurt them, but if you look at a county like Putnam, it’s done just the opposite, and Staten Island is bragging that they’ve enrolled five times more Republicans than Democrats since Trump won,” said Gerald Kassar, chairman of New York’s Conservative Party, which while operating as a third party, often works in tandem with the GOP and endorses its candidates.
A Path for the Elephant
While robust in his support for the President and the nationalist-minded GOP he leads, Mr. Langworthy readily admitted that the road to rebuilding New York’s party involves rekindling a unique brand that emphasizes issues which resonate widely in the state. He said that the radically “progressive” agenda that has ruled the city, and Albany of late, has given ample fuel to such a movement.
“We’re not trying to push a right-wing agenda, we’re trying to push back to the center, back to common sense,” he said. “A lot of Democrats can feel very comfortable with the ideas we’re supporting, like responsibility to the taxpayer, school choice, bringing back cash bail and unhandcuffing the police so that they can protect us the way they’re supposed to.”
Party strategists widely agree that a consistent focus on fiscal conservatism and lowering crime rates is essential to building a successful state brand, and strongly recommend muting rhetoric on immigration and culture-war talking points central to the GOP’s national message.
Yet wide agreement does not automatically translate into candidates that support the vision of party operatives, something Mr. Doherty said was the result of the primary system and Albany’s work at redrawing districts.
“It’s very hard to do because of gerrymandering,” he said. “They set up districts where only one party can win. To run there, you need to run a primary campaign so far to the right or left that the races don’t end up being competitive, and it’s killed the state’s Republican Party.”
Another challenge is the massive fundraising advantage held by the state Democrat’s war chest. Yet the party’s advisors say that if other obstacles can be overcome, finances will not hold them back.
“If people see that you have a chance of winning, the money shows up and it remains when you are in office. I think that will be the case,” said Mr. O’Reilly.
Another universal theme in the party’s rehabilitation was to build a more diverse GOP, in Mr. Langworthy’s words “a party that looks like the state,” marketing Republican ideas to blacks, Hispanics, East Asians, and other growing constituencies.
Mr. Kassar, whose party has also endorsed candidates such as the unique brand of conservative Democrats that typically represent Boro Park and Flatbush, added that Republican candidates needed to do a better job of cobbling together constituencies that share their values, such as Orthodox Jews, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and religious Hispanics.
“Part of the problem is money. You have to first lock in your base before you look beyond that, but the party needs to work on communicating to different communities,” he said. “COVID slowed us down, but the law enforcement issues in the city could give Republicans back their brand.”
The feeling was widely shared by other operatives, who saw spiking crime and anti-police attitudes from City Hall as an opening for Republicans. Other themes they felt would pick up support in the state were lifting some of Albany’s regulatory regime to encourage more businesses to weather the COVID storm in the city and suggesting ways to build on support for school choice from Washington and a recent Supreme Court ruling.
Mr. O’Reilly was optimistic that the party would find its way back to greater standing, though not until after Trump’s term ends. The caveat, he said, was not simply a matter of opposition to the President himself, but part of a consistent pattern in the state’s politics.
“It’s easier for a Republican to get elected in New York when there’s a Democrat in the White House because most people want a healthy balance; they don’t want the county going too far to the right or left,” he said. “I don’t think people will register Republican in flocks, but especially if the crime wave in New York City continues, people will cross over and look more at the individual than the party. New York is not going to continue as a one-party state, and as dissatisfaction grows, voters will look for alternatives.”