Politics & Poker: Pataki Is Trying to Stay in Shape, Just in Case

Posted May 3, 2010 at 4:59pm

Center-right Republican governor of a big, diverse state. Urged to run for Senate this cycle by party leaders.

Fiscal conservative, social moderate, strong record on the environment. Shows an ability to get along with labor unions. Has been talked about as a vice presidential candidate, at the very least. Definitely harbors national ambitions.

You probably think this is another pundit weighing in on Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who abandoned his bid for the Republican Senate nomination last week and is running instead as an Independent.

Fooled you! Our topic today is former New York Gov. George Pataki (R), who shares — or shared — a political profile with Crist.

But while Crist inevitably is shifting to the left to stoke his Independent candidacy, Pataki, who apparently hasn’t abandoned his hopes of being on a national ticket sometime soon, seems to be tacking right.

Pataki, now almost four years removed from the limelight, is returning to the political scene with a new 501(c)(4) called Revere America. Its goal: to repeal — and possibly replace — the health care reform law.

It was inevitable that someone was going to try this. Why not Pataki? He says he’ll devote between 10 percent and 50 percent of his time to the project between now and the fall, stumping the country to gin up support for the movement. His group hopes to collect 1 million electronic signatures on petitions, urging national policymakers to repeal the law. Already, he’s headlined a very symbolic anti-reform rally at the Old North Church in Boston on the 235th anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride and has appeared in TV ads promoting the organization.

“We should not just accept as a fait accompli the passage of the health care reform bill,” he said during a recent conversation with Roll Call reporters and editors. “This is a way of asking leaders, of asking candidates, ‘Are you with us or not?'”

This isn’t Pataki’s only recent foray into national politics. He also headlined a fundraiser in — drumroll, please — New Hampshire, for businessman Bill Binnie, a Republican candidate for Senate who is not the first choice of the GOP establishment. That distinction falls to Kelly Ayotte, the former state attorney general, who could be expected to amass a record not unlike Pataki’s if she comes to Capitol Hill. But Binnie is the flavor of the moment for some conservatives, and there’s Pataki, helping him out.

But while Pataki is fiddling on the national stage, the Republican Party he left behind in New York is burning. And that begs the question: Even though he’s not governor anymore, isn’t tending to the homefront the best thing he can do for his party these days?

Pataki doesn’t see the New York GOP as being in distress. He concedes that the party has some challenges in statewide elections this year (one of them being the race against appointed Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, which he took a pass on and said he never seriously considered). But he also notes that the party has made some important gains on the local front recently, and it’s a fair point.

“We have tremendous, tremendous talent,” he said. “When you look at the strength of this party, it is a building strength.”

Yet there are warning signs that the 2010 cycle for New York Republicans may not be as great as it ought to be. Despite back-to-back screw-ups at the top since Pataki left office — Eliot Spitzer and now David Paterson — Democrats are heavily favored to keep the governor’s office in their column, with state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo as their nominee. Republican leaders can’t even agree on a candidate. Pataki has conferred his blessing on ex-Rep. Rick Lazio, the safe GOP choice. But new state Republican Chairman Ed Cox, the son-in-law of Richard Nixon, has cast his lot with Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who just switched parties to become a Republican.

No less than half a dozen Democratic-held Congressional seats in New York are in danger of flipping to the GOP this November. But in races against Democratic Reps. Tim Bishop, John Hall, Bill Owens and Michael McMahon, Republicans face competitive, and likely quite divisive, primaries. (In some of these races, ex-Pataki operatives find themselves working for competing candidates.) And the party has not drafted a strong candidate into the race against potentially vulnerable freshman Rep. Scott Murphy (D).

And with redistricting almost upon us, the very key to GOP survival in New York may rest on Republicans’ ability to win back control of the state Senate this fall — an iffy proposition despite all the Democratic dysfunction in Albany over the past few years.

Where is Pataki in these critical races? He says he’s doing what he can — and is taking a particular interest in Owens’ race, because he owns a second home in the upstate district.

“I’m hoping we find a voice that reflects the will of the people of the district,” he said.

Whatever campaigning he undertakes this year, Pataki has shuttered his political action committee to devote his time to the health care repeal.

Asked who he thinks the Republican presidential nominee will be in 2012, he shrugs. Asked about his own national ambitions, Pataki, to paraphrase his old rival Mario Cuomo, isn’t making plans or making plans to make plans. But, he adds, “I’m smart enough to know never to say never.”