Lazio is out in New York, but will it matter?

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September 28, 2010

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

He was the Republican Congressman who fell short of a Senate seat ten years ago and failed to clinch his party's gubernatorial nomination two weeks ago. Now, Rick Lazio is out of the race entirely.[1]

Having waited too long to take Carl Paladino's upstart campaign seriously, Lazio lost the New York Republican primary by an embarrassing margin for a veteran politico to go down to a neophyte. However, he still had the endorsement of the state's Conservative Party and a line on the ballot.

In New York, polls indicate that voters are fed up with the way things are, and that might hurt Democrat Andrew Cuomo. While he may have years of experience and statewide name recognition as the sitting Attorney General, he is vulnerable to being painted as the status quo. He also shares a party with Governor David Paterson, who has had his share of bad press since taking office.

Recently, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose resignation amid a prostitution scandal put Paterson in power, made national headlines when he went beyond declining to endorse Cuomo and called him, "the dirtiest, nastiest political player out there."[2] With outward signs of internal friction among New York's Democrats added to a likely GOP wave in the midterms, 2010 may be the best chance Republicans have had at the state's top office in a generation.

It's still uphill going, but having Lazio out of the picture is a start. Paladino's public persona has been a distraction to say the least and this move may be partly designed to mitigate as much as possible. Early in his campaign, Paladino got into hot water for forwarding sexist emails and repeating anti-Semitic slurs made about a member of the New York Assembly. Then, it came out he has an out-of-wedlock child from an affair a decade ago, a daughter whose existence he hid from his own wife for ten years.

In New York, the Republican and Conservative Parties typically share a civil working relationship, and no Republican candidate has won statewide office without having the Conservative ballot line in almost 40 years. Under the state's fusion voting rules, now that Lazio has given up his candidacy, Paladino is clear to take over the Conservative's line.

It's a boost Paladino and the Republicans need. Relations with the Conservative Party were unusually strained through most of 2010 and it's clear that neither the Republican nor the Conservative Party have ended up with the candidate they wanted. Lazio, on his way to being the Republicans' favored candidate, faced a nasty inter-party challenge from Ed Cox, himself the chair of the New York Republican Party, who openly recruited a Democrat - Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy - for the GOP gubernatorial nod.

With that unsightly flap in the past, Lazio secured the Republican nomination at the party's spring convention. Carl Paladino, however, reacted with an all-out signature gathering blitz and put himself back into the race. He tapped into voter anger, pushed a platform that resonated with Tea Party activists, and displayed a work ethic that Lazio (supposedly referred to as "Lazy-o" inside GOP circles) never matched.

Paladino's aggressive fundraising and ability to self-fund sealed the deal and the Buffalo business owner walked away with a primary night win. The major upstate-downstate vote split that night demonstrated to all that Paladino has rapidly created a base of support in his home turf of Erie and Niagara Counties.

Divisions and spats in politics in New York having been made embarrassingly public in this cycle, Republicans and Conservatives alike were understandably keen to capitalize on signs of similar discord among Empire State Democrats. To make the most of it, though, the Republican-Conservative alliance needs to put forward a believable show of unity. Moreover, Paladino needs to pick up the endorsements that haven't yet materialized.

In addition to Lazio's continued reticence to make a formal endorsement, down-ballot Republican candidates and key players in New York's GOP are withholding their endorsements. Still, Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long has backed Paladino and it's a start. Lazio's exit may also be the signal for New York's numerous minor parties to begin making public endorsements of Paladino.

Whether or not it happens, Election Day is weeks away and Paladino still needs some major coalition building to beat Cuomo to the Executive Mansion. Cuomo immediately called out Paladino and his Tea Party backers as "extremists."[3] With an unabashed conservative to run against, Cuomo has hardened the fiscally centrist tone he took early in his campaign, moving left to bulk up his own coalition.

"Andrew Cuomo's shift in strategy is a better measure of how serious this race is than the divergent polls," said political historian Fred Siegel. He added, "Rather than try to win over centrist voters, Cuomo is concentrating on the turnout of his base, while hoping that Paladino, on his own, discourages centrists from supporting the Republican."

If that is the landscape that voters face on November 2, then a great deal of upheaval in the name of returning governance to the average citizen may all be for naught.

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