New York GOP Struggles

Infighting, a calculating husband and a touch of desperation sound like the latest prime-time soap opera. In this case, it's the Republican Party of New York state.

Facing the prospect of two formidable Democratic candidates next year, including one named Sen. Hillary Clinton, the GOP is being undercut by disagreements major and minor — from party leaders' inability to agree on who should run for governor or the Senate, to grumbling from the Senate majority leader that the lame-duck Republican governor won't let him use the state helicopter.

"It's a party in a state of disarray," said pollster Lee Miringoff, head of Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion.

Part of the GOP woes can be tied to increasing statewide strength of the Democrats at the same time as a national Republican shift to the right.

New York has been a Democratic bastion — the last time it backed a Republican was Ronald Reagan in 1984 — but it has become even more so. Since 1980, the number of Democrats has increased to about 5.5 million, a jump of more than 70 percent. Republican enrollment has grown by 35 percent, to slightly more than 3 million voters.

Improbably, Republicans have managed despite all that to win races for governor and New York City mayor since 1994 and keep state Senate control since 1966. In part, they've done so by being not very Republican.

Nationally, the GOP's conservative base has increased its numbers and captured seats in Congress, creating an odd fit with New York.

"You can't be conservative as a Republican Party in New York and be successful," said Gerald Benjamin, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the State University of New York's New Paltz campus and a former local elected Republican official.

That reality was clear in 2002 when Gov. George Pataki moved sharply left in winning a third term. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who cruised to a second term in November, is a Democrat-turned-Republican.

Pataki, the giant slayer who knocked off Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994, announced in late July that he would not seek a fourth, four-year term in 2006 amid speculation that a bid for the presidency was his next step.

With Pataki a lame duck, pollster Miringoff said the cohesion and the discipline are gone, "and now everyone is a free agent."

Just last week, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno threw the GOP into a tizzy when he called for Jeanine Pirro to give up her quest for the Republican nomination to challenge Clinton and run for state attorney general instead. Bruno's call came despite endorsements of Pirro from Pataki and his hand-picked state Chairman Stephen Minarik.

Pirro met for two hours with Pataki last week and when she emerged, delivered the ambiguous pronouncement that she remained a candidate "right now."

Within days, the New York Post reported that Albert Pirro, the candidate's lobbyist husband, was secretly trying to get his wife out of the Senate race. Albert Pirro, while not denying the claim, said "any private conversations I have had were solely intended to support Jeanine's political aspirations."

Bruno has been encouraging Golisano to step up. Last week, he also asked Bloomberg to run for governor; the mayor said no.

Meanwhile, independent polls indicate the leading candidate for the GOP nomination for governor is billionaire businessman B. Thomas Golisano, who hasn't said he is running and wasn't even a member of the party until October. Golisano is already a three-time loser as the gubernatorial candidate of the Independence Party and spent $75 million of his own money in 2002, largely berating Pataki and the state GOP.

For his part, Minarik is pushing the candidacy of a Republican who already has experience as governor — of Massachusetts. William Weld is trying to join Sam Houston as the only American to serve as governor of two states. Houston led Tennessee and Texas.

Early polls show Weld and Golisano coming up short against state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the only announced Democratic candidate for governor, and Pirro losing to Clinton.

"Philosophically, they've been heading the wrong way," said state Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long, a Pataki ally. Long said the support by Pirro and Weld for abortion and gay rights does not sit well with his party, even though Pataki has also been a strong supporter of gay and abortion rights.

Long's concerns are another complication for the GOP given that no Republican since 1974 has won a statewide election without Conservative Party support.