The New York State Republican Party had been in serious difficulty for some time when Edward Cox became chairman a decade ago—whereupon the decline accelerated. Today, the party is essentially defunct at the statewide level, and Cox is leaving, to be replaced by Nick Langworthy, Erie County’s GOP chairman. Now one question hangs over Empire State politics: is a Republican revival, which Langworthy promises, even possible?
It would be simplistic to blame Cox for the party’s rickety condition. Long-term demographic change and blue-state blowback to the Trump presidency battered the GOP last November, when the party lost formal control of the state senate and three arguably winnable congressional seats, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, and incumbent Senator Kirsten Gillibrand coasted home with easy wins. Republicans haven’t captured a statewide race since 2000, when George Pataki topped the ticket.
Current trends indicate worsening prospects. Democrats enjoy a two-to-one party-enrollment advantage. The upstate region has lost about 1 million residents. “Eds and meds”—universities and hospitals—which traditionally attract mobile Democrats, are the only game in town in many Republican-leaning counties. Changes to election law encourage urban turnout.
But, perhaps, Republicans have hope. New leadership and realistic priorities could combine to make a difference. The outcome depends on the party’s new leadership. No account of Cox’s tenure is complete without noting that he was Richard Nixon’s son-in-law—a supposed heir to a bareknuckle tradition of electoral politics. In fact, Nixon and the other architects of Watergate loathed the genteel, so-called East Coast Republicanism practiced by Wendell Willkie, Tom Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller—and, in our own day, by Cox.
The establishment GOP brand has since been eclipsed by digital-age politicking, and Cox’s results—a clutch of early Tea Party-driven congressional wins and virtually nothing since—show it. Cox practices law and raises funds in New York County, and his Manhattan-centric approach to life and politics contrasts sharply with that of the most successful GOP chairman of recent times, William Powers of upstate Rensselaer County. Powers took over after a Republican gubernatorial debacle in 1990 that almost cost the GOP major-party status. Concentrating on local and regional elections, Powers built organizational infrastructure that helped ease Rudy Giuliani into the New York mayoralty in 1993 and made Pataki governor a year later.
Powers offers a grassroots template for Langworthy to follow when he formally replaces Cox in July. The newcomer should think as big as circumstances permit, but he mustn’t forget that the party’s dire condition means local elections, particularly for the state senate, matter more now than statewide victories.
Langworthy hails from Western New York, where politics is a blood sport, and he’s a protégé of Buffalo contractor and combative 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino. Manhattan gentility is unlikely to characterize his leadership. Money will always be scarce, and Buffalo’s politics could produce nasty surprises.
Langworthy is looking at a steep climb, but opportunities exist. President Trump carried 45 of New York’s 61 counties in 2016, and Albany’s new, all-Democratic legislature is merrily grinding out bills of the sort that have traditionally repelled upstate and Long Island voters. Combine that with continuing good economic news, fold in a dollop of sophisticated organization, garnish with professional campaigning, and defend it all with thumb-in-the-eye politicking, of the sort that Cox reflexively avoided—and who knows what might happen?
Besides, New York’s Grand Old Party has nothing left to lose.
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