A surprise candidacy in the New York governor’s race has brought into stark relief a central dilemma facing resurgent Republicans this year: Should they stick with reliable conservatives or field candidates who are perceived as more electable?
Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, a Democrat, has switched parties to run on the Republican line, which had been widely assumed to be the property of Rick Lazio, a former congressman best known for stepping in when Rudy Giuliani dropped out of the 2000 Senate race against Hillary Clinton. Lazio, a bank lobbyist in the interim, is a well-liked local figure, a reliable Republican and a patient and deferential man who has waited his turn but has run what many believe is an uninspired campaign.
Levy, his supporters say, is far better poised to capture the zeitgeist, to run against corrupt insiders in Albany and Washington and to beat Democratic state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in November.
"My skill set lines up perfectly with what the mood of the public is," Levy told POLITICO, promising to "take a sledgehammer to Albany and knock it to pieces and then rebuild it from scratch."
But the choice between the two has brought back bad memories of the GOP’s spectacular failure last year in another prominent New York election — the special House election upstate that ignited an uncontrollable grass-roots wildfire.
The nascent primary for governor has already become less about the two Long Islanders, Levy and Lazio, than about the path forward for the Republican Party, in New York and nationally. Levy’s Republican supporters and operatives are drawn from the maverick world of John McCain’s first bid for president and, harking back further, from the cadre of Republicans still bound to President Richard Nixon’s calculating, moderate political legacy. Lazio has the support of former Gov. George Pataki’s regular Republican circle and national connections to Mitt Romney’s inner circle.
Levy’s detractors think his party switch is grounded in opportunism — the lines are shorter on the Republican side of the ledger in New York. And the outspoken county executive is no tea partier. But his crusades against illegal immigration and excessive spending, along with his rhetoric against elites, place him in concert with the spirit of the anti-establishment movement that is animating grass-roots conservatives.
Levy is “a gamble,” said Rep. Peter King, the veteran Long Island Republican and Lazio backer, adding that the difference between the two gubernatorial candidates is that “you know what you’re getting, and you don’t know what you’re getting.”
“Rick is the safe bet,” King continued. “I think Rick can win, but it’s going to be tougher for him because he is the more conventional candidate. Levy can win big or lose big. He’s a roll of the dice. He has potential to really do well, and he has potential to really burn out. He’s an independent contractor.”
But King added that in an “angry year,” Levy may be just the sort of candidate who could tap into populist outrage among centrist Democrats and independents.
“He’s not a [Dede] Scozzafava,” King said, referring to the GOP nominee whose candidacy fractured the party in the ill-fated upstate New York special election last year. “His positions over years have been hostile to the mainstream of the Democratic Party. His appeal is going to come as a Scott Brown-type candidate, not as a moderate.”
But Levy’s bid is also causing agita within the Republican tent, deepening bitter rifts inside the state and national GOP. State party Chairman Ed Cox has endorsed Levy, while Pataki and Giuliani support Lazio. The Republican Governors Association is, while formally neutral, enthusiastic about Levy’s entry. The Republican National Committee, also formally neutral, is said by Republican sources to prefer Lazio.
National Republicans still blame the New York GOP for its selection of the liberal-leaning Scozzafava, whose name is now a curse in national Republican circles and a stain on the reputation of the RNC and other party committees in the view of the conservative grass roots.
Lazio’s campaign, hoping to portray Levy as Scozzafava 2.0, welcomed him to the race with a tally of his apostasies: voting for tax increases as a Democrat in the state Assembly, calling President Barack Obama’s stimulus package “manna from heaven” and backing Al Gore and John Kerry for president.
Former Rep. Tom Reynolds, the Buffalo-area politico who once headed the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Cox’s move to get behind Levy has “turned heads — and has some scratching their heads.”
“Some in the party are asking, ‘If the state chair has done this, is this something we should look at?’” Reynolds said.
As for the national party’s role, Reynolds said: “New York will make its own decisions.”
New York is currently represented by Cox, who is 64 but probably still best known as the polite, patrician young man who married Tricia Nixon in the Rose Garden in 1971 and stood beside his father-in-law at his East Room farewell. Cox told POLITICO that he and other party officials worked to recruit Levy for all the right reasons: because he’s a strong candidate with a record of keeping a tight grip on the taxpayer’s purse.
“He is thinking, 24/7, about the taxpayers, who are his ultimate bosses. He’s just been very good at that,” said the party chairman. “As far as principles are concerned, he and Rick are very much the same. With respect to social issues, they are the same; and they’re both fiscal conservatives. But Steve has a real record to run on.”
Lazio’s campaign sees another reason: Cox’s son, 31-year-old Chris Cox, is one of a half-dozen candidates seeking the GOP nomination for Congress in Levy’s populous Suffolk County. The district is bubbling with anti-establishment ferment, and voters threw out a cadre of county legislators there last fall, though Levy managed to harness the discontent to his advantage. Chris Cox’s consultant is John Weaver, who dealt with the elder Cox when the state party chairman headed McCain’s campaign in the state. The younger Cox has won the support of crucial local officials allied with Levy, as well as the support of McCain’s old apparatus.
“Of course, there is a political deal here,” charged Lazio campaign manager Kevin Fullington. “Why else in the world would the local Republican chairman support someone like Chris Cox for Congress? [Candidates] Randy Altschuler and George Demos are well-funded candidates who actually have ties to the district. Support of Mr. Cox defies any reasonable explanation except that there is a political deal.”
A senior New York Republican also smelled a deal.
“Ed Cox has a summer home in the Hamptons, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, his son appeared as a candidate for Congress?” asked this influential Republican. “The feeling is Cox made a deal with the Suffolk County Republican leader that he would support Levy in return for his son being endorsed for Congress. And in politics, once people talk about it, that makes it real.”
Both Coxes heatedly denied any compact.
“My dad plays no role in this nomination process,” said the congressional candidate, who added that he’s received a warm reception in a district that is “ground zero for a lot of the tea party movement.”
But Lazio supporters see even deeper, older wheels turning. The younger Cox’s finance committee includes former Nixon aide and McCain loyalist Fred Malek, as well as Nixon Foundation President Ronald Walker. And the regional official of the Republican Governors Association, which played a crucial role in recruiting Levy, is an old Nixon hand, prompting grumbles in Lazio’s camp about the origins of the group’s endorsement.
Levy’s allies vigorously denied the insinuation that Cox is pulling the strings behind some kind of Nixonian enterprise.
“That’s the silliest damn thing I can imagine,” said Ed Cox.
“The RGA is concerned about financing candidates who can win,” he said, adding that the group had polled both candidates. “Talk of cabals and all that is unworthy of [RGA Chairman] Haley Barbour and the superb organization he has put together.”
Cox paused, then delivered a jab to the more cautious RNC, which the New York Post recently reported had threatened to deny funds to the state party if Levy heads the ticket in November.
Barbour’s “organization, unlike other Republican organizations perhaps, is very well structured, very well led, very purposeful,” he said.
The RNC, for its part, thinks little of the state chairman.
“The underlying fight is between Cox and the RNC,” said a veteran GOP strategist who’s close to the national party. “The RNC does not have faith in Cox’s ability to be an effective chairman there. This was a pretty powerful committee that is now a shell of that.”