By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star
---- — Though they campaign in one of the nation’s bluest states and saw their last gubernatorial candidate get clobbered, local Republicans said they are optimistic about their chances of roaring back across New York in 2014.
Anthony J. Casale of Cooperstown, a senior advisor to state GOP Chairman Ed Cox on public policy and legislative affairs, said New York Republicans are gaining momentum at a time that they are preparing for the next wave of elections in 2014.
The state’s top job — governor — will be up for grabs in the coming year. Casale said he is confident his party will field a competitive candidate to run against incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a first-term incumbent, former state attorney general and eldest son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo.
“I don’t think the Republican Party is moribund in this state,” said Casale, a former state assemblyman. “We’re very much alive and moving in the right direction.”
One potential challenger gaining popularity across the state with GOP activists, he said, is Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. The 46-year-old Astorino enjoyed back-to-back election victories in his last two outings in a county known to usually tilt toward Democrats.
Astorino, who helped create the ESPN sports radio station in New York City, has yet to declare whether he will run for governor. Casale noted that Astorino even won the town of New Castle, where Cuomo resides in a house owned by his girlfriend, Food Channel star Sandra Lee.
Among other reasons for the fresh GOP optimism is the fact that the party now holds 14 out of the 18 county executive seats in the state and captured control of one of the Erie County legislature — representing one of New York’s most Democratic counties — in the most recent cycle.
Other bright spots include the fact that a GOP candidate, Rich David, was crowned the victor in the November race for mayor of Binghamton, and the fact that, locally, Otsego County Republicans expanded their dominance of the Board of Representatives this year, said Casale.
While Cuomo has generally enjoyed positive poll ratings, Casale predicted his popularity will drop once voters scrutinize his record in office.
“His answer to the economic problems of upstate appears to be nothing more than casinos right now,” Casale said.
In addition, he said, Cuomo infuriated many New Yorkers who own guns legally by pressing for a package of stringent gun control measures known as the SAFE Act following the school massacre in Connecticut last year.
“The wheels are very wobbly right now,” he said in describing Cuomo’s efforts to prepare for the coming election.
Otsego County Democratic Chairman Rich Abbate argued that any optimism by Republicans in the 2014 statewide contests is not grounded in reality.
“The Republicans have no ideas,” he said. “I think the governor has changed this state around in a very positive way. He has helped our economy to go forward. I see him winning and winning big.”
The governor’s race will play out in the aftermath of the ongoing national political battle over President Barack Obama’s controversial push for national health care reform. Abbate said he sees no negative fallout for Cuomo from that fight.
“Health care reform is going to be looked back upon as one of the great achievements of this time,” Abbate said.
And while Cuomo has tested the patience of activists on both sides of the simmering debate over gas drilling by delaying a decision on fracking rules, Abbate said he believes the governor’s supporters will understand why his deliberations have been so lengthy.
“When he gets all the information (from Dr. Nirav Shah, the state health commissioner, on the effects of fracking) he’ll make a decision,” he said. “Personally, I hope he doesn’t (allow fracking in New York).”
Abbate also said that Cuomo tried to come up with constructive solutions to gun violence while Republicans have been content to merely make political hay out of the issue.
As for the fact that Democrats lost three seats on the Otsego County board in November while picking up only one, Abbate acknowledged, “We have to go back to the drawing board and work a little harder.”
Delaware County GOP Chairwoman Maria Kelso said Cuomo won’t be able to escape being linked to Obama’s health care initiative, as he has supported it from the beginning.
“It is definitely going to have repercussions for the 2014 elections,” she said.
She also said the GOP’s chances of success in the coming year should not be seen through the lens of the shellacking suffered by the party’s 2010 candidate at the top of the New York ticket, then-gubernatorial hopeful Carl Paladino, a Buffalo businessman.
“Paladino self-destructed on his own,” Kelso said.
Kelso, who declined to comment on whether she will support Astorino, said the GOP will prosper if it can rally behind a candidate who is not a self-promoter and is effective at communicating directly with New Yorkers.
“Just be an advocate for your state and your constituents,” she said, “and you’ll have a winning message.”