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New York Times

New York: Blue and Getting Bluer

Sam Roberts

February 20, 2005

It took 14 weeks of recounts and litigation before Nicholas A. Spano finally won re-election to the New York State Senate this month. By carrying his district in the Westchester suburbs of New York City - by all of 18 votes - Mr. Spano, now known as Landslide Nick, helped maintain the embattled Republican majority in the State Senate.

But he also achieved a more curious distinction: He broke a nationwide dead heat in state legislative seats. Counting Mr. Spano, the 2004 election made the count 3,657 Republicans and 3,656 Democrats; before last November, Republicans led by 64 seats.

That Mr. Spano was caught in such a squeaker illustrates an important truth: Republicans may be triumphant now at the national level, but that doesn't mean the party is doing well in the states, where all politics is local.

New York State has been something of an against-the-odds success story for Republicans. In national election-map parlance, it is obviously a blue state: it hasn't backed a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan in 1984 (though President Bush did better in New York against John Kerry than against Al Gore). Enrolled Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 5 to 3. In Congress, Democrats hold 19 of the 29 House seats, and they easily won both Senate seats.

Switch to local politics, though, and the state looks much redder. The state has had a Republican governor for all but 24 of the last 60 years, including George E. Pataki's three terms so far. The Democrats last controlled both houses of the Legislature in 1965. The last two mayors of solidly Democratic New York City have been Republicans. The state's small towns and rural counties have overwhelmingly been in Republican hands, and until recently, so were the suburbs.

But lately, even as Republicans have been gaining ground nationally they have been losing it in New York, and in some other states around the country as well. The reasons are many, ranging from population shifts to an erosion of party identification. But one thing it does not necessarily seem to be about is ideology.

Voters look at national and local candidates through very different lenses, and party labels can mean different things. The accommodations of day-to-day governing at state and local levels mean that elected officials must often run afoul of party oratory just to get things done.

As recently as the 1970's, New York City's northern and eastern suburbs were among the most reliably Republican places in the country. Now the county executives in the three largest suburban counties are all Democrats - not because of a surge in liberalism, so much as because voters grew tired of entrenched incumbents and rebelled against mismanagement, scandal and the painful local consequences of budget cuts in Washington and Albany. The Democratic victors may soon find themselves vulnerable for the same reasons.

"You can't say New York is a red state by virtue of the fact they elected a Republican governor or even a mayor," said Matthew Dowd, who was chief strategist to President Bush's campaign. "New York is like California, where depending on the Republican, and the campaign, and the Democrat, the Republican can win."

Still, much of the wind has gone from Mr. Pataki's sails. If, as seems increasingly unlikely, he seeks a fourth term next year, the latest New York Times poll suggests that he would lose to the state attorney general, Eliot Spitzer. Other polls find little chance of his unseating Hillary Rodham Clinton in a Senate race.

Few other Republicans of obvious statewide stature are coming up behind Mr. Pataki. He, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Michael R. Bloomberg, the current mayor, have all tended to be one-man shows; none has groomed a successor or galvanized the party's grass roots. Since voters in New York, even the Republicans, tend to be more liberal than their counterparts elsewhere on many issues, including abortion, affirmative action and the death penalty, Republicans who are able to win office often draw fire from the right. Conservatives grew so disgusted with Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller in the 1960's that they split off to form their own party.

More recently, Mr. Pataki was blasted in the latest issue of National Review as a governor whose "tenure as the Empire State's chief executive began with incredible promise - but its legacy almost certainly will be one of squandered opportunity, shrunken ambition and conservative disappointment."

The disconnect between New York and national Republicans runs both ways.

"The state's Republican leaders rose to national prominence when the kinds of moderate, pragmatic politics and policies that succeeded for them in New York were those that Republicans thought were necessary to win nationally," Gerald Benjamin, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the State University at New Paltz, has written. "The ideological polarization of the major parties made these appeals less attractive to the more conservative national G.O.P., while at the same time making the G.O.P. less attractive to New Yorkers."

Demographic trends in New York may be working against the Republicans as well: New York City's population is growing compared with that of the suburbs and upstate areas.

But politics is personal as well as local. Gerrymandering keeps incumbents in office, and campaign spending can trump party labels; voters may tire of old faces (after three terms, Mario M. Cuomo had worse ratings than Mr. Pataki does today), and candidates, and even parties, can blur their stripes, as Senator Clinton did recently by saying that proponents and opponents of abortion rights should find "common ground" to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

"We have the women and abortion, but you lose a lot of people when you talk about third-trimester abortion," said Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell of Manhattan, the Democratic state chairman. "We've got to be more rational about how we cure things, and what we're going to have to start to do is to make some better decisions about how we treat our friends."

Still, Mr. Farrell says confidently, New York is certainly a blue state. His Republican counterpart, Stephen Minarik, prefers A.B.B. - anything but blue. "How about purple?" he said.

 


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