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A harvest-time feel in N.Y.

Democrats running strong see it as a place to pluck House seats.

November 01, 2006|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — On a drizzly afternoon here late last week, former President Clinton attracted more than 400 enthusiastic activists, seven television cameras and reporters from across New York's southern tier to a raucous rally for Democratic congressional and state legislative candidates.

On the same day, John Spencer, the Republican candidate for the Senate seat now held by Clinton's wife, slipped into and out of the city with little notice. After a local company barred Spencer from using its facility for a news conference about the economy, he was reduced to addressing a handful of reporters "beneath the canopy of an abandoned gas station," the Syracuse Post-Standard reported.

So it goes this year for the two major parties in the nation's third most-populous state. In an election season that seems certain to produce Democratic gains around the country, New York may provide the party with the most resounding victories.

Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, the incumbent senator, and Eliot Spitzer, the state attorney general now running for governor, are cruising toward landslides over underfunded, little-known Republicans who have been virtually abandoned by the state and national GOP.

"I think it's going to be a mirror image of [the Republican landslide] in 1994, where the Democrats basically sweep the state," said Rob Ryan, Spencer's communications director and a veteran GOP operative.

Dan Maffei, who is running against GOP Rep. James T. Walsh in Syracuse, puts the prospect more colorfully: For New York Democrats, he said, the story this year "really can be 'The Empire State strikes back.' "

With so little doubt about the top of the ticket, the crucial question is whether the Democratic tide will be strong enough to help Maffei and other challengers capture any of the six GOP House seats across upstate New York that Democrats are contesting aggressively.

"The opportunity is there for us," Sen. Clinton said after she spoke at a fundraising lunch for Maffei, a former Capitol Hill aide.

Converting that opportunity won't be easy against incumbents who have entrenched themselves by diligent constituent service in districts that almost all lean toward the GOP. But Republicans Walsh, John E. Sweeney and Thomas M. Reynolds may need every bit of that goodwill to survive in a year when state and national political trends are against them.

"There is no cover being offered by the president, the war or the top of the ticket in New York," said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the independent Marist Poll at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "There is no cover for any of these people. They are out there on their own."

The decline of the Republican Party in New York is a story both epic and shabby, like a tabloid tale of a wealthy family that generation by generation slowly goes to seed.

The New York GOP once produced titans of Republican moderation such as Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller and Sen. Jacob K. Javits; it has held the majority in the state Senate since 1966. In 1994, Republican George E. Pataki was elected to the first of his three terms as governor; he is retiring this year.

But forces internal and external have corroded the party's foundations. Many critics say that Pataki, and former GOP Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato before him, focused more on rewarding supporters than on building a strong organization. "There was no sense of a state party," said historian Fred Siegel, who has written extensively on New York politics. "It was a party for people who were connected."

Tensions between moderates and conservatives have compounded the problems. Party leaders, for instance, initially recruited William F. Weld, a former Massachusetts governor who had moved to New York, as their preferred candidate against Spitzer. But delegates at the state party convention in June rejected Weld, who supports legal abortion, for John Faso, a much more conservative former state Assembly member who opposes abortion rights.

Pataki is leaving office with a weak approval rating, grumbling by conservatives over rising spending, and a sense among many New Yorkers that the state has drifted in recent years. Spitzer has seized on that sentiment with a muscular campaign slogan that dramatizes his confidence and the expectations he'll confront if he wins: "Day One: Everything Changes."

Looming over these local factors is the regional realignment of the GOP, which has lost strength across the Northeast as it has become more closely identified with Southern-flavored social conservatism.

"The national Republican Party defines the environment as much as anything else, and the conscious decision of the Bush White House to polarize the country on an ideological basis, and in part even on religious affiliation, has done tremendous damage to ... Republicans in New York," said one veteran state GOP strategist who asked not to be identified while criticizing White House strategy.

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