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No Mo’ Cuomo?

Rob Astorino tries for an upset.

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Astorino hopes “Cuomogate” will prompt voters to stop simply “rolling their eyes” and realize how widespread and expensive the problem has become. “The corruption is, in many ways, paid for by the average New Yorker in a stealth corruption tax,” he says. “The slimy deals they cut for themselves in Albany have to be paid for. Who pays for that? We all do in higher taxes, a poorer business climate.”

Astorino needs the anticorruption message to resonate not just in the conservative upstate region but also the New York City suburbs, where residents are paying their “corruption” tax through, among other things, high property taxes. Between 2008 and 2012, property tax rates increased by more than 28 percent statewide but by 35 to 40 percent in the suburban New York counties. Democrats have recently had success in these counties—Westchester, Rockland, and Orange, and Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island—but only marginally. Cuomo in 2010 and Eliot Spitzer in 2006 won the New York suburbs handily, but in 2012 Barack Obama won most of these areas by only a couple percentage points.

While Democrats have had a loose hold on the suburbs, the GOP can’t win statewide elections without them. The only Republican governor of New York since the 1970s, George Pataki, won all five major suburban counties, and with them, he was elected three times. Pataki didn’t have to win New York City, and neither does Astorino. “The battle is in the upstate and in the suburbs,” he says. His model is similar to the one Pataki used in his successful 1994 challenge to Andrew Cuomo’s father Mario; Astorino says it was encouragement from his mentor Pataki that finally pushed him to run.

“We had breakfast in December,” Astorino tells me. “He said, ‘I don’t know where your head’s at, but I’m here to convince you that you should run and you can win.’ ”

Astorino has a built-in advantage, too, as the twice-elected executive of Westchester County. After losing to the longtime Democratic incumbent in 2005 by 16 points, he ran again in 2009 and pulled off a stunning upset by a margin of more than 12 points. Astorino was reelected last year, again by 12 points. That’s not a bad base of support from which to begin a suburbs-centric campaign.

“Westchester County is a very influential county, it’s a very large county, it’s a very mixed county. If we can win in a diverse county, with two-to-one Democratic enrollment, then I think we should be learning from that example,” he says.

The goal for Astorino is to improve his name recognition and make the impossible—beating Andrew Cuomo—seem possible. He points out that in 1994 the polls had Mario Cuomo ahead of Pataki to the very end. But Pataki was never 30 points down, either, which shows one of the sharpest differences between the two races. It’s one reason why in July Chris Christie, the governor next door in New Jersey and chairman of the Republican Governors Association, called the race a “lost cause” for the GOP and said he likely wouldn’t be campaigning for or donating to Astorino if the numbers didn’t tighten.

Astorino responded on a local radio show, saying the New Jersey governor should resign his RGA post; he even suggested there could be a “side deal or a quid pro quo or a handshake” between Christie and Cuomo over Christie’s own “Bridgegate” scandal.

When I ask him a few weeks later about Christie’s “lost cause” remarks, Astorino laughs. “It was a stupid comment to make, and I think he had every opportunity to change his opinion of this race, because two days after, the New York Times broke the story on Governor Cuomo’s federal investigation,” he says.

The Christie flap has transformed Astorino’s campaign into something of a proxy for likely GOP presidential candidates. Almost immediately after Christie made the comment, the New York Post splashily reported that Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal—Christie’s predecessor at the RGA and a potential 2016 rival—had promised to headline a high-dollar fundraiser for Astorino in New York. So have other possible presidential candidates: Rick Perry of Texas, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Mike Pence of Indiana. Perhaps they really do see an opportunity for Astorino to capitalize on a growing scandal for Cuomo and disenchantment with Democratic policies in the suburbs to pull off an upset win in a big state. But it’s also smart presidential politics for would-be contenders to appear early and often in front of New York-based GOP donors.

Even Astorino himself pitches his long-shot candidacy in terms of the next presidential election. “If the Republican party is going to compete nationally, they’ve got to do much better in the suburbs and in the Northeast,” he says. “If we win New York, it changes the entire landscape in 2016.”

Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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