In New York Races, GOP Hopes for One Hopeful

Posted February 12, 2010 at 5:29pm

After years of losses that have whittled their Congressional delegation to two, New York Republicans believe they are primed for a turnaround in 2010.

But before they can win back seats, the GOP must get through a crowded and potentially fractious primary season. At issue is the party endorsement process, where local party chairmen are attempting to narrow a suddenly abundant crop of candidates.

Party officials in New York are determined to avoid the divisions that led to the loss of former Rep. John McHugh’s (R) upstate seat in a special election last fall — a cautionary tale that continues to resonate as they seek to unite around one candidate in as many as eight targeted districts.

Rob Ryan, former Gov. George Pataki’s (R) campaign manager when Pataki was catapulted into office on the strength of voter anger in 1994, compared that campaign to the current political environment in New York.

“If you multiply that anger times 10 you have what’s going on right now,” said Ryan, who is advising Republican House candidates in New York’s 1st and 23rd districts.

“This has never happened before,” Suffolk County Republican Chairman Jay LaValle said of the surge of candidates who have come out to run for office. “In the recent past, [local GOP officials] literally had to beg people to run,” he said. Now, they are “scratching down my door.”

However, the GOP is discovering the flood of eager Congressional candidates can be a double-edged sword.

Republicans have multiple competitive candidates in the 1st, 13th, 19th, 23rd and 25th district races. The only competitive districts where the GOP is rallying around one clear favorite are the 24th — where businessman Richard Hanna (R) is seeking a rematch with second-term Rep. Michael Arcuri (D) — and the 29th, where former Corning Mayor Tom Reed (R) is taking on freshman Rep. Eric Massa (D).

The crowded fields have made the local party endorsement process — and county party chairmen — all the more significant. The goal among party officials is to anoint one candidate and prompt others to drop out, in hopes of avoiding contested races in primary elections that are among the latest in the country, on Sept. 14.

But instead of unity, the endorsement process has led to feuding between party chairmen and candidates in the 1st district, held by fourth-term Rep. Tim Bishop (D), and the 19th, held by second-term Rep. John Hall (D).

The process also has created bad blood between candidates in the 23rd district, heightening the chances of a contested primary and even a scenario similar to the special election for McHugh’s seat, which featured separate Republican and Conservative Party candidates.

The ability to run on multiple party lines is one of the idiosyncrasies of New York politics, and it makes third-party endorsements from such groups as the Independent, Working Families and Conservative parties significant.

“The danger in New York of some of these Republican primaries would be a failure to arrive at one candidate, which as New York 23 proved, can be fatal to our chances,” said Ray Meier, a former New York state Senator and 2006 candidate for the 24th district Congressional seat.

Orange County Chairman Bill DeProspo said that for a Republican, running without the Conservative Party endorsement is akin to political suicide. “In the state of New York, if you think you can run for a Congressional seat without the Conservative line and without the Independent line, you’re just not paying attention,” DeProspo said.

Michael Long, the state chairman of the Conservative Party, said his “intent is to work with the Republican Party” during the endorsement process. “Ed Cox and I have been talking,” he said, referring to the new state Republican Party chairman. Long said that in the case of a GOP primary contest, the Conservative Party endorsement tends to give candidates a leg up.

“When we endorse someone, we take them at their word that they’re going to campaign all the way to November,” Long added.

So far the Conservative Party has decided on only one endorsement: the 23rd district, where Doug Hoffman, who ran as the Conservative Party’s candidate in the fall special election, is seeking another shot at Rep. Bill Owens (D). Three other Republicans also are planning to vie for the nomination.

Hoffman has not ruled out running on the Conservative line again if he does not win the GOP nomination, but Ryan, his adviser, said talk of Hoffman losing the GOP nomination “is sort of silly.” Ryan pointed to an internal poll conducted by McLaughlin & Associates in January that showed Hoffman winning a four-way GOP primary with 56 percent of the vote, more than 30 points ahead of the second-place finisher, state Assemblyman Will Barclay.

Neither the Conservative Party nor the county Republican parties have made endorsements in any of the other competitive districts, and Long said they are all “wide open.”

LaValle and the Suffolk County Republicans are moving toward making an endorsement in the 1st district in the next few weeks. The committee has screened seven Republican candidates and plans to bring them back for a final round of questioning. Among the frontrunners is attorney Chris Cox, son of state GOP Chairman Ed Cox and grandson of President Richard Nixon; former Securities and Exchange Commission prosecutor George Demos; and former CIA officer Gary Berntsen.

Not on LaValle’s list is Randy Altschuler, a wealthy entrepreneur who has been touted by the National Republican Congressional Committee as a viable candidate, but who LaValle has publicly said is flawed. That has sparked an ugly war of words between the county GOP chairman and Altschuler’s campaign, heightening the prospect for a GOP primary.

Another Republican primary is brewing in the 19th district, where ophthalmologist Nan Hayworth has been running since the fall and is considered a strong candidate by the NRCC, but is facing local push-back. The county chairmen don’t plan on issuing an endorsement until sometime in the spring, but DeProspo is openly questioning Hayworth’s credentials and said that he is seriously considering entering the race himself. Two other Republicans have also opened campaign committees. Hayworth’s adviser, Jay Townshend, said Hayworth plans to run regardless of whether she wins the county parties’ endorsement.

Republicans Michael Grimm, a former FBI agent, and Michael Allegretti, a former aide to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), meanwhile, are both running for Rep. Michael McMahon’s (D) Staten Island-based 13th district. Grimm has the backing of former Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, but Richmond County Chairman John Friscia said it is far too early to make an endorsement, if the party chooses to make one at all.