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GOP chairman optimistic about 2018 governor's race

Marco Varisco

Republicans in the state of New York met for a planning session in Albany on Tuesday in advance of the 2018 campaigns, which will begin shortly.

The party’s leader, Ed Cox, believes Republicans have a good chance at winning statewide offices against Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others next year.

Republicans in New York face a daunting challenge in the race for governor next year. There are fewer GOP voters than ever, as the number of Republicans shrinks and Democratic ranks grow.

President Donald Trump, the head of the Republican Party, is widely unpopular in New York. And the GOP does not have the funding currently to match the $25 million campaign war chest of Andrew Cuomo, who’s said he’ll likely seek a third term in office.

Nevertheless, Cox believes Cuomo is vulnerable, despite the governor’s near-universal name recognition among voters.

“It depends what the name means,” Cox said. “At the moment, I’m not sure it’s a plus for him, because of the way he has conducted himself as governor.”

Cox said Cuomo made a mistake when he banned hydrofracking in New York, and he said the nanotech industry has faltered with the indictment of its former leader, Alain Kaloyeros, along with eight other former Cuomo associates.

He also said Cuomo let the New York City subways deteriorate while he instead focused on a synchronized music and light show on the city’s bridges. Cox said all that shows in recent public opinion polls, where he said Cuomo’s job approval rating is in the low 40s.

“He’s in trouble, and when you’re in trouble, you start making mistakes,” Cox said. “Particularly when your ambitions go beyond your present position and you want to be the next president of the United States.”

Cuomo has not said that he’s running for president in 2020, though his name is frequently mentioned as a potential candidate.

Cox predicts that if the Republicans come up with a good candidate, he expects money to follow from groups, including the Republican Governors Association. In 2014, the RGA was chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Cuomo ally who withheld funds from the 2014 GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino. Christie is no longer chair of the RGA.

Potential candidates include Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, state Sen. John DeFrancisco and businessman Harry Wilson.

Wilson, who is independently wealthy, said he’s still thinking about the race. But he said if he does, his entrepreneur background would be an asset.

“I’ve spent a career fixing broken organizations,” said Wilson, who added he’s helped save jobs and help businesses “turn around and flourish.”

“I think that’s exactly what’s wrong with New York state,” Wilson said. “Particularly the upstate economy.”

Wilson said if he were to run, he would contribute a substantial sum of his own money to the cause.

The head of New York’s Democratic Party, Basil Smikle, defended Cuomo’s record, saying the governor has enacted a number of popular progressive programs, including the $15 minimum wage, the “strongest” paid family leave and gun control laws in the nation, raising the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, and enacting a free college tuition program for some middle-class families.

Smikle also took some personal shots at Cox, who is the son-in-law of late President Richard Nixon, calling him an “unregistered fracking lobbyist” because Cox owns shares in a natural gas drilling company. Smikle also said Cox is aligned with Trump.

“He’s Donald Trump’s top cheerleader in the state,” said Smikle, who accused Cox of tolerating corruption under former state Senate Leader Dean Skelos, who now faces prison time for his crimes.

Cox said Republicans need to win the governor’s office if they hope to retain control of the state Senate, where the GOP rules with the help of some independent Democrats. He said he doubts that the majority of New Yorkers would like to see a one-party state controlled solely by Democrats. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.