Ed Cox’ Gamble Was One He Had to Take

GOP Chairman Ed Cox’s decision to back Steve Levy for the Republican nomination for governor of New York seems strange to some – particularly in light of the fact that he had to know that the Conservative Party was planning to endorse Rick Lazio. As every reporter covering these events has pointed out, the Republican Party has not won a statewide election in New York without Conservative Party support since 1974.

Yet, that very fact helps explain why Cox has gone outside the box in an effort to revitalize the NYS GOP. Critics of Cox’ decision need to be reminded that the NYS Republican Party was in a shambles after the 2008 election. The Party held no statewide office and had just lost control of the NY Senate for the first time in four decades. In terms of voter registration the Democrats have twice as many registered voters as Republicans. Further, GOP finances were reportedly in bad shape and, in light of Wall Street’s economic troubles, the promise of donations from the financial district had to be much diminished.

When Cox took the chairmanship of the State GOP less than a year ago, he must have wondered whether the alliance with the Conservatives was worth the price they extract for their support.

In “NYS & the Rise of Modern Conservatism,” Timothy Sullivan covers the history of the Conservative Party in NYS, focusing on its success in driving moderates out of the Republican Party. The founders of the Conservative Party were young men committed to the ideals of small government. They opposed Nelson Rockefeller’s construction of a welfare state in New York and Jacob Javits’ support for the New Society legislation in Congress.

The Conservative-Republican alliance had numerous successes, including pushing Rockefeller to the right and James Buckley’s successful US Senate win in 1968. However, in recent years objective observers of Republican Party fortunes might have begun to question to the value of being tied to the Conservative Party.

For one the Conservative Party seems devoid of new ideas or at least new approaches to winning support. This can be explained by the fact that they are not truly committed to winning elections on their own right. They exist for one reason: to prevent the Republican Party from drifting to the left. One consequence of this is that the Conservative Party has not grown its own membership in decades. Thus, the number of votes the Conservative Party can contribute to the GOP has not grown.

Finally there was the disastrous from the GOP viewpoint 2009 special election in the 23rd Congressional District. By refusing to endorse Dede Scozzafava, an admittedly moderate Republican, to replace long-time Congressman John McHugh, the Conservatives threw the 23rd CD into the Democratic Party camp. This left a clear choice for Ed Cox – stay ideologically pure with the Conservatives and lose or, if conditions permit, show some independence and give yourself a chance to win.

The deciding factor in Ed Cox’s decision to support Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s decision to seek the GOP’s endorsement for governor may have to been the rise of the Tea Party Movement. In New York as well as all across the country, thousands of people have shown their displeasure with the Democratic Party’s platform and Barack Obama’s leadership style by their willingness to get off their couches to attend meetings, go to demonstrations and talk to their neighbors about politics.

If the NYS GOP did not react to this groundswell by offering a candidate with a chance of winning in November, it could be decades before another opportunity to revitalize the party came along.

Steve Levy may or may not be able to capture Tea Party votes in November (assuming he is able to gain the GOP endorsement which is as yet unclear.) Yet Levy, who represents someone who has successfully disregarded political boundaries in the past, at least shakes up the mix. Complicating the situation is the candidacy of Tea Partyer Carl Paladino, a Buffalo-area developer.

If Ed Cox had stuck with Rick Lazio, who had not shown either the ability to raise money or excite the voting public, he would have kept the GOP inside a box that could well be put on the political shelf and forgotten. The Democrats would have undoubtedly won the gubernatorial election (which they still are favored to do) and probably gained a clear margin in the Senate. By showing his willingness to break with the past, Cox is inviting people in Steve Levy’s mold – fiscally conservative and socially moderate – who are upset with the Democratic Party’s national and statewide direction to move into the GOP camp in 2010.

If I had to lay odds as to whether Ed Cox’s move will bear fruit, I’d give it a 1 in 3 chance at best. But, if he had stood pat, his chances would have been much worse. Endorsing Steve Levy was a gamble, but it was one he had to take.

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