Reporting from New York — New York Republicans have been a party on the verge of extinction for almost a decade. They have virtually nobody in Congress and no power in the state capital. The party is so weak that if it doesn't have a good showing in November it could be left with little representation.
So given the choice in the GOP gubernatorial primary Tuesday between a "mad as hell" outsider and a party regular whose day job had been to lobby for Wall Street, New York Republicans turned out in larger than usual numbers to vote for Carl Paladino, the anti-establishment candidate.
The fiery real estate developer from Buffalo didn't just beat Rick Lazio, he crushed him.
GOP insiders were flabbergasted. "This is the candidate that the base of the party wanted," state party Chairman Ed Cox said to reporters Tuesday night, sounding a little stunned.
Paladino won 62% of the vote and helped draw almost twice as many registered GOP voters to the polls Tuesday as have voted in previous off-year primaries, experts said; an estimated 15% turned out Tuesday.
"People have seen chaos in Washington and chaos in Albany and they just don't know what to tell their children and their grandchildren. We'll give them that hope," Paladino said Wednesday.
Apparently a big share of Paladino's support came from upstate, where economic hardships have not let up for years, driving residents to flee for jobs in states with lower taxes, according to experts. New York rarely elects governors or U.S. senators from upstate because most residents live in or near New York City.
"You have to give Carl credit. He connected with voters in a visceral way and they came out in numbers to vote for him," said David Catalfamo, a political analyst who helped elect New York's last Republican governor, George Pataki.
Although much is being made of Paladino's backing by "tea party" activists, other factors contributed to his victory. From the start, the state party had problems rallying around Lazio, who couldn't raise money or interest in his ambition to be governor. He'd been trounced in a Senate run against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000, and big donors questioned what would be different a decade later. He will face the well-financed state Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo, who is seeking the job his father, Mario, held for three terms in the 1980s and '90s.
Paladino — who spent $3 million of his own money, compared with the $2 million that Lazio scrambled to raise — promised to cleanse the scandal-ridden statehouse.
Paladino, 64, is not exactly a Boy Scout — he has been caught passing on e-mails with pornographic images and racist jokes to friends, and has had to apologize more than once for politically insensitive remarks about Jews and poor people. But all that seemed to wash away as he hammered at voter frustration over the embedded political ranks in Albany and drew his campaign mantra from the famous line in the 1976 movie "Network":
"We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore," Paladino said after he took the podium at his victory party Tuesday night in Buffalo. He labeled his Democratic opponent "status Cuomo" and offered an anti-establishment message similar to the one that helped him eviscerate Lazio.
He vowed to cut taxes by 10% almost the day after he takes office and slice state spending by 20%, though both actions would require the support of the Democrat-dominated Legislature.
Whether Paladino's promises and take-no-prisoners approach will work against Cuomo in November is unclear. Paladino, however, should not be underestimated, Catalfamo said.
"We've had a governor resign for prostitution, another embroiled in scandal after scandal, and the statehouse under every sort of investigation," Catalfamo said. "Albany is such a mess. Well, I understand Carl is not the perfect candidate but he is frank about it, so the question is: Does that candor and honesty buy him a pass for things that typically are disqualifiers?"