Another election, another debacle for New York Republicans.
While GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava's abrupt withdrawal Saturday from the Nov. 3 House election in upstate New York came as a surprise, it shouldn't have — over the past decade or so the New York Republican Party has emerged as the political gang that couldn't shoot straight, an operation so inept that it's sometimes hard to believe it exists in the nation's third-largest state.
The collapse of Scozzafava's campaign—and the quick rise of the national conservative revolt sparked by her nomination—is simply the latest calamity to befall the New York GOP and an illustration of the utter ruin into which the state party has fallen. In just a few short years, the party's presence in state politics has dwindled to the point of extinction-or irrelevance.
Little more than a decade ago, Republicans controlled the governor's mansion, the state Senate, one of two U.S. Senate seats, 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the New York City mayor's office.
Since then, though, the GOP has declined at a steady and accelerating pace. Today, the party has virtually no presence in the congressional delegation-it controls just two of the state's 29 House seats at the moment. It lacks a single statewide elected officer and represents only a minority in both chambers of the state Legislature-the first time since the New Deal that New York has had a Democratic governor and legislature. In 2006, in an open governor's race, the Republican nominee failed to win even 30 percent of the vote.
Last April, Republicans botched another upstate House special election despite starting with a 70,000 Republican voter registration advantage. In that contest, a high-ranking state Republican, Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, cemented the GOP's Keystone Kops reputation by blowing a lead against an unknown businessman with no experience running for office, despite benefiting from heavy national Republican spending that far outpaced Democratic spending.
"I think the state of the New York Republican Party is at its lowest ebb we've seen and I've been watching this since the early '70s," said former Rep. Tom Reynolds, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee who also served as the GOP leader in the state Assembly during the 1990s. "When we look at 2010, it's hard to imagine us going any lower than we are."
Making matters worse, Reynolds said, there's little sign Republicans are prepared to start clawing their way back in 2010 with a strong statewide slate. While Republicans are hopeful that former Gov. George Pataki or former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani will run statewide, neither has made serious moves toward launching a campaign and the GOP bench is painfully thin.
"We have six statewide offices and one announced candidate, and that is [former Long Island Congressman] Rick Lazio, who has announced for governor," Reynolds said. "Many believe and want to believe that there's an opportunity. And I think that remains to be seen."
For a party less battered and demoralized, 2010 would seem to be the mother of all opportunities. Though New York Democrats have dominated at the polls two cycles in a row, they have also suffered from a series of scandals and missteps that have permanently tarnished some of their most powerful figures.
The first scandal came barely a month after the 2006 elections, when state Comptroller Alan Hevesi resigned amid an investigation into financial corruption. Then, Gov. Eliot Spitzer was implicated in a prostitution scandal that ended his term in office.
Spitzer handed off his post to his running mate, David Paterson, who promptly admitted a history of extramarital affairs and drug use. Paterson then fumbled the process of filling a vacant U.S. Senate seat in early 2009. Paterson's approval ratings are so low and his prospects for re-election are so grim that the White House has intervened in the hopes of convincing him not to seek a second term. Yet in polling matchups with Lazio, the only announced GOP candidate, the beleaguered governor remains competitive.
Republicans point out that the state party is a victim of political forces beyond its will, located in a region of the country that has recoiled from the conservative national party and from George W. Bush. They note that Democrats also have a daunting, built-in advantage which includes a voter registration edge that's grown to nearly 3 million--a 50 percent increase since 2000.
"It's not like they [New York Democrats] have some well oiled functioning machine," said John Faso, a former Republican leader in the state Assembly and 2006 gubernatorial candidate. "They just have a great institutional advantage in terms of the number of voters in the state."
Democratic Rep. Steve Israel witnessed the state's turn to the left firsthand, as a local officeholder and congressional candidate in the formerly Republican strongholds of Suffolk and Nassau counties. Centrist and conservative New Yorkers who might have once voted for Giuliani or Pataki, he argued, have been brought inside the Democratic fold.
"We have, as Democrats, we have learned how to appeal to moderate, suburban voters throughout New York State-not just on Long Island," said Israel, who serves as a recruiter for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "We've proved it in moderate areas with [second-term Rep.] Mike Arcuri, [freshman Rep.] Eric Massa. We've just, we have learned how to win those quintessentially moderate, suburban, soccer-mom districts."
Even if voters are frustrated with the state of New York politics, Democrats say, Republicans are in no position to capitalize since the GOP has matched Democrats nearly scandal for scandal, from the hasty retirement of Rep. Vito Fossella following a drunk driving arrest and the subsequent revelation that he'd fathered a child out of wedlock, to the defeat of Rep. John Sweeney amid reports of spousal abuse to former state Senate President Joe Bruno's indictment on multiple corruption charges earlier this year.
Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat who has repeatedly endorsed Republican candidates in state and federal elections, predicted that Republicans are unlikely to be the beneficiaries of widespread voter disgust with the political class.
"The Republicans they perceive to be just as bad and out of touch with reality in terms of what people want today, politically.," he said.
Some Republicans worry that the centrist Scozzafava's special election collapse amid tremendous conservative opposition could send a bad signal to the broader New York electorate.
Former Rep. Sherry Boehlert, an upstate centrist who saw his seat flip to the Democratic column after he retired in 2006, sounded a bleak note earlier this week when asked about the special election.
"It probably says to a lot of people who are registered Republicans, maybe I should reconsider my registration," Boehlert said. "I think, from a Republican standpoint, it would provide further evidence for some that there doesn't appear to be any room in the Republican Party for people who are moderate in their thinking."