Rep. Anthony Weiner’s resignation was cheered by New York Republicans. Now comes the hard part: picking up the seat.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, will likely call for a special election. If history is any guide, it could be a bloody, three-party brawl.
In New York, GOP county committees select the nominee. The practice has caused stumbles. Upstate, Republicans have lost three special House races since 2009.
Much of the mess in those contests was caused by friction between the party brass and conservative activists. Untapped candidates became third-party insurgents. Scores of Republicans, fed up with the closed-door process, stayed home. Others backed the spoiler.
Yet in Weiner’s district, NY-9, the congressman’s Twitter scandal may be this year’s lone off-Broadway drama. Local Republicans, aware of past disasters, are working together to catch that rarest of political birds: a GOP House seat near the heart of New York City.
The optimism starts with the leading potential candidates, Eric Ulrich and Bob Turner. Ulrich, a 26-year-old city councilman, is widely seen as a rising star; Turner, a businessman, garnered 40 percent against Weiner in 2010. The pair admire each other, they chat often.
In fact, Turner, in an interview with National Review Online, says that if Ulrich wants the nomination, he can have it. If Ulrich bows out, he will be more than happy to throw his hat into the ring. But the party’s interest, more than anything, will drive his decision.
“If Eric decides to run, I will drop out and enthusiastically support him,” Turner says. “I am thinking about the long-term future of the party. He is a sitting city councilman, the only elected Republican in the district. That being said, if he does not run, with my name-identification from the last race, I’d be the logical choice. We have a network of volunteers ready to go.”
Ulrich recently met with former mayor Rudy Giuliani, who reportedly gave his blessing. Still, friends say that the comer is on the fence about a run. As a city councilman, he is busy with legislation and various community projects. New York’s looming reapportionment battle is another factor. Even if he won the seat, the district could be carved up next year, its neighborhood sliced and diced according to Albany’s whims.
Republicans do control the state senate, but Weiner’s replacement will have no guarantee that the district will go untouched. Veteran House members will be looking to protect their own seats, with little care for the upstart, be he a Democrat or a Republican.
As Republicans wait for Ulrich to make up his mind, party bosses are already strategizing about how to put up a fight in this deep-blue district. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 150,000, to be sure, but President Obama won only 56 percent of the vote in 2008. Over the past decade, vote totals have trended toward the GOP.
“A Republican win is possible,” says John McLaughlin, a New York–based pollster. “Bob Turner did better than expected in 2010, even with little money from the state and national party. Republicans do not have a good track record in New York special elections, but this district is complex, with pockets of conservative voters. In a low-turnout environment, the right Republican candidate could capture the seat.”
Sensing opportunity, Phil Ragusa, the chairman of the Queens GOP, and Craig Eaton, the chairman of the Brooklyn GOP, will huddle next week and begin to interview interested candidates. They both tell NRO that there will not be punches thrown. They know the chances of winning are slim, and that the campaign will have little room for error.
Acknowledging the GOP’s spotty special-election record, Eaton says that he is determined to “learn from the mistakes of the past,” keeping the nomination process open and fair. “We really want to have a united slate here, we can’t fracture,” he says. “If we fracture, we lose.”
Any possible candidates, the chairmen say, such as Brooklyn tea-party activist Andrew Sullivan, are more than welcome to make their case.
As for a third-party scare, they do not expect one. New York’s Conservative party, which backed Turner in 2010, will likely support the Republican nominee. Operatives note that Mike Long, the Conservative-party chairman, is from the area and friends with Turner. This, they emphasize, will make a difference with activists on the ground.
In 2009, the Conservative party split from the GOP in NY-23, and a Democrat won the seat. Rob Ryan, the Conservative-party candidate’s strategist in that rough-and-tumble race, predicts that the GOP nomination process in NY-9 will not be as wild.
“Eaton and Ragusa work well together, and they work well with the Conservative-party leaders in the two counties,” Ryan says. “This race may not actually be a screw-up. There are no personality problems or warring counties.”
Ragusa agrees. “We will be consulting with the Conservative party. We have a very good partnership with them,” he says. “We won’t be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
The cliché that New York Republicans lose every special election may finally be disproved. For conservatives exhausted by intra-party squabbles, that’s a relief.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.