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'The Empire State Strikes Back'

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, October 13, 2006

NEW YORK -- What is happening to the Republican Party in New York state is the national GOP's nightmare. The once-thriving political organization of Nelson Rockefeller, Al D'Amato and George Pataki is a shambles.

And the way the Republican coalition has broken up should have national Republicans scurrying for a new game plan.

For many Americans, "New York" evokes the liberal salons of Manhattan. But Manhattan is a small piece of the Empire State. Political change has been driven by the populous suburbs of Long Island and Westchester and Rockland counties, and by the vast stretches of Upstate New York that are far closer in spirit to the Midwest than to the Upper West Side or the Silk Stocking District.

The Republican collapse here has been driven by two streams of defectors: suburban moderates and Upstaters.

As a result, the entire Democratic ticket, led by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Eliot Spitzer, the party's candidate for governor, is expected by just about everyone to sweep the state. As many as five Upstate Republican congressional seats -- they would constitute a third of the 15 seats that Democrats need to win the House -- are in jeopardy.

"It's 'The Empire State Strikes Back,' " says Democrat Dan Maffei, a former congressional aide who is running a surprisingly strong race against Rep. Jim Walsh, the Republican incumbent, in a district that stretches from Syracuse to the Rochester area.

Maffei sees the immediate trend toward Democrats powered by frustration with President Bush and the Iraq war. But it is also rooted in long-term factors: the economic troubles of many Upstate communities, the area's "libertarian" leanings on cultural issues and the homelessness felt by many moderate Republicans in the face of a national party increasingly dominated by conservatives.

"Bush Republicanism," Maffei says, "is not for them."

D'Amato, the voluble Republican who served 18 years in the U.S. Senate until he was defeated in 1998 by Charles Schumer, sees demographic change -- the increasing number of Hispanic and African American voters -- as augmenting the Democrats' advantage in party registration. Hispanics, of course, are also a growing part of the electorate in other key states, some of them traditionally Republican.

But he adds that "there is something broader than the Republicans falling on hard times, which they are." He notes that in New York, "after the tenure of a strong governor," the party that long held power often sees its organization fall apart. This happened to Republicans after Rockefeller's long run and to Democrats after Pataki defeated Mario Cuomo in 1994. With Pataki retiring, said Assemblyman Pete Grannis, a Manhattan Democrat, it's the Republicans' "time in the skillet."

State Sen. Kemp Hannon, a Long Island Republican who has spent nearly three decades in the legislature, also worries that the coalition of "Reagan Democrats" that D'Amato helped build -- "they were Irish, Italian and Polish Democrats and some Jews" -- is a thing of the past. "I believe that Bush has destroyed that whole thing," Hannon says. "It's not here any longer in the Northeast." And the parts of Upstate New York "not moving ahead economically whatsoever . . . feel it a great deal."

Adds D'Amato: "It's very similar to an Ohio kind of thing," meaning that vulnerable New York Republicans are in much the same spot as their endangered congressional colleagues in former industrial powerhouse regions to their west.

Bill de Blasio, who managed Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign and is now a New York City Council member from Brooklyn, sees the pincer movement against Republicans from the suburbs and Upstate as similar to what's happening in other parts of the country.

"The two trends are quite universal," de Blasio says. "There's a growing body of suburbanites who are increasingly concerned about the rightward drift of the Republican Party, and voters very worried about what's happening to real wages." Paul Tokasz, the retiring Democratic majority leader in the state Assembly -- he hails from Cheektowaga, just outside Buffalo -- says the same suburban movement away from the Republicans that is so visible in the New York City area is happening in metropolitan areas across the state.

D'Amato, normally a happy Republican warrior, is in a blue mood about November. "You have a foreign policy which is groping and a domestic [Mark] Foley scandal, so you have a lot of disaffected people, and I think it's going to result not only in the Democrats taking over the House, but also with substantial numbers."

As New York goes, so goes the nation?

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