ALBANY (TNS) — Are Republicans headed for another embarrassing defeat in next year’s race for governor?
Joel Giambra believes they are. The former Erie County executive thinks the GOP is likely to choose a candidate with strong ties to Donald Trump — U.S. Reps. Elise Stefanik and Lee Zeldin come to mind — and with no chance at winning a general election in deep-blue New York.
So, with an eye toward heading off the inevitable, Giambra is suggesting his party open its gubernatorial primary to the unaffiliated — voters, in other words, who are not registered Republicans and are presumably more moderate.
“The thought here is to find a blueprint, a game plan, that would allow us to win when you have a Democrat who appears vulnerable,” Giambra told me. “If you want to win, you have to do something different.”
The vulnerable Democrat is Andrew Cuomo, of course, who shows every intention of running for a fourth term despite being dogged by a long list of controversies, including an attempt to hide nursing home COVID-19 deaths and sexual harassment allegations that are being investigated by the state attorney general’s office.
“I did nothing wrong, period,” a defiant Cuomo said April 26.
A good opponent should be able to convince voters that Cuomo has, in fact, done plenty wrong. And assuming the governor survives a Democratic primary challenge, he might just lose to a moderate Republican in 2022. But I think Giambra is right to believe the governor would gleefully carve up a Republican closely associated with Trump.
Cuomo would wrap Stefanik, Zeldin or any other Trump acolyte in the former president’s many sins. He could return to the anti-Trump playbook that served him so well. He would again have the perfect foil.
Trump, after all, lost New York in the 2020 election by 23 points. And a recent Siena College Research Institute poll found that just 33% of New Yorkers view the former president favorably.
As I said in a recent column, any politician cynical enough to vote against certifying legitimate presidential election results just hours after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol will not win in New York. That disqualifies both Stefanik, the congresswoman representing the North Country, and Zeldin, who is from Long Island and has already announced his candidacy.
“This is not Alabama,” Giambra said. “If you want to attract moderate voters, give them a candidate they can be comfortable with.”
Giambra notes that nothing prevents the GOP from opening up its primary. The Independence Party has done so recently, he said, adding the change would require only a shift in party rules.
Admittedly, Giambra is a self-interested party. He’s considering his own run for governor and is a decidedly moderate Republican with a long-standing distaste for Trump. (In 2016, he publicly supported Hillary Clinton after declaring Trump to be “absolutely crazy.”)
But the Buffalo resident, who was Erie County executive from 2000 to 2007, has also shown an ability to win in an area where Republicans need moderate — and even some Democratic — voters to win. In that sense, he might be a model for a potentially successful New York candidate.
Giambra says Republicans, who haven’t won statewide since 2002, need to consider their massive enrollment disadvantage. There are 6.7 million registered Democrats in New York, 2.9 million registered Republicans, and roughly 3 million unenrolled voters, according to the state Board of Elections.
“If you can’t get Democrat votes, you can’t win as a Republican in New York,” Giambra said. “It’s just a numbers game.”
So far, Giambra’s idea is not finding a receptive audience among GOP leadership.
“I’m not going to let people from other parties infiltrate our party selection process when other parties don’t do the same,” state Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy said.
That stance isn’t surprising. By agreeing to Giambra’s proposal, Langworthy and other GOP leaders would be saying, in essence, that they don’t trust the party’s base. They would also be giving up control over the race.
Langworthy said the party would prefer to avoid a primary altogether, since they are “rarely a unifying force.” He added that Democrats will attempt to tie any Republican, no matter how moderate, to Trump.
“We know their playbook going into the race,” he said.
Langworthy is probably right about that. Consider that Cuomo dubbed Marc Molinaro, his 2018 opponent, a “ Trump Mini-Me” despite the Republican having declared that he hadn’t even voted for Trump.
Still, the attack would be more effective against some candidates than others. If Republicans can predict the opposing team’s playbook, shouldn’t they prepare their defense accordingly?
And yet there are already signs that the party is coalescing around Zeldin, who has already been endorsed by more than half of the state’s Republican county chairs. He’s the front runner.
(Chris Churchill is a columnist for the Time Union of Albany.)