The defection of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter from the Republican Party has sparked a national soul search among members of the GOP. But New York Republicans have their own identity crisis to manage.
After almost a month of ballot counting in the too-close-to-call special election for the seat vacated by now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Republican James Tedisco bowed out of the race last week. Democrat Scott Murphy has won the heavily Republican 20th congressional district.
This contest was the first opportunity for the state Republican Party to make a strong case against the new Obama administration’s spending and bailout bonanza and the leftward lurch toward bigger government in Washington and Albany - and to clarify what exactly we Republicans stand for.
What happened is a template for what ails the GOP statewide.
First, the Republican Party picked a 58-year-old candidate, then-Assemb. Minority Leader Tedisco, who didn’t even live in the district. And it ran a miserable, negative, sour campaign that served to raise the name identification of a young, unknown but attractive Democratic newcomer.
Given the overwhelming Republican registration advantage in the district, Murphy’s win means that the GOP is turning off Republican voters. And a party that cannot get its own voters to the polls to vote for its candidates has no chance of success. Period.
Second, the state Republican organization has abandoned the grunt work and shoe-leather approach that makes a party successful. Absentee ballots decided this race, and in a Republican district, they should have heavily favored Tedisco - provided the party assiduously contacted every registered Republican and conservative in the district, asked them if they wanted an absentee ballot, and then sent them one. This little detail must have been ignored, while the Democrats executed the game plan with perfection.
Then there’s the message, and a question that stretches beyond our state borders: What exactly do Republicans stand for these days? Is it the fiscal conservatism that had long been our hallmark - until Gov. George Pataki here and President George W. Bush nationally spent like liberal Democrats and turned the Republican Party into a Democrat Lite Party? Or is it angry negativity, with no positive solutions for what ails the state and the nation - and the reason more voters across the nation now identify themselves as independent instead of Republican?
All of this points to failed leadership, and we see it at the national, state and local levels. Even in Nassau County, we have seen what was once the greatest Republican political machine in the nation reduced to near irrelevancy. And with the once-unthinkable loss of control of the New York State Senate, the Republican Party has become a non-factor in Albany.
The average age of the remaining GOP state senators is 62. The image of the party is of an old, tired, backward-looking group of white guys. Where’s the farm team? Why aren’t young, potential rising stars for the GOP being groomed and encouraged to run?
I’ve had many well-publicized disagreements with Joseph Mondello, who heads both the state and Nassau County GOP. But perhaps my single biggest disappointment in his tenure as chairman in Nassau is that Democratic voter registration has surpassed Republican. The basic function of a political organization is to use old-fashioned, block-by-block hard work to register voters for your party.
But in addition to the door-knocking, we need a massive technological upgrade. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign showed that fundraising and organizing on the Internet is the future of American politics, yet Republicans are a generation behind.
The Republican Party, which under Bush helped launch this “bailout era,” needs to return to Abe Lincoln’s credo - “Government should only do for people what they cannot do for themselves” - and recognize that among our many rights is the right to fail. At all levels, we need to become again the fiscally responsible party that knows government can’t solve all problems. And we need to follow a more libertarian-conservative social philosophy that attracts - not repels - voters.
Until the GOP installs visionary, technologically savvy and hungry-to-win new leadership. we will remain irrelevant.