Divisions remain among New York Republicans over whether to attend RNC

With the Republican National Convention set to begin next week, many New York GOP officials are making last-minute preparations – or explaining why they won’t be attending.

A major question surrounding the convention has been who will show up, with some members of Congress, including two from New York, saying they won’t go, at least in part because they don’t support the presumptive nominee, Donald Trump.

While many New York Republicans have expressed excitement about Trump’s campaign, an air of uncertainty remains, with lines being drawn, with the party preparing to embark on what is shaping up to be a tightly contested general election race, as the GOP looks to reclaim the White House after eight years under President Barack Obama.

Tom Reynolds, a Republican and former congressman from New York who helped with convention planning during his tenure, said he has never seen an election cycle like this one.

“2016, I believe, will likely go down in history as altogether, just different than what conventional wisdom says on, really, both sides,” said Reynolds, who saw his fair share of national conventions over his 35 years in elected office, attending all of them from 1980 until his retirement in 2008.

Two New York congressmen who won’t be making the trip to Cleveland, Reps. Chris Gibson and Richard Hanna, are not running for re-election. Both have publicly questioned whether Trump is the best candidate the party could put forward. Gibson has said he still is not sure who he will vote for, while Hanna has been more forthright with his denouncement of the New York City real estate mogul and reality television personality.

“I certainly don’t plan to vote for Hillary Clinton,’’ Gibson told the Democrat & Chronicle this spring. "And I am waiting to see how this campaign unfolds. Whether I vote for Donald Trump, vote for the Libertarian candidate or write somebody in, that’s going to be a decision I am going to make in the future.’’

Of course, neither will have to worry about turning off Trump supporters in the fall.

Reps. Elise Stefanik and John Katko are the other two Republican members of New York’s congressional delegation who will not be attending. They join a number of other state and local electeds up for re-election, including state Sens. Patrick Gallivan and Rob Ortt, who have told City & State they are skipping the convention to spend more time in their districts.

New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich, who may challenge Mayor Bill de Blasio next year, will also not be in attendance. His spokesman, Kevin Tschirhart, said in an email that it wouldn’t make sense for him to go.

“Councilman Eric Ulrich is not a delegate, and accordingly he will not be going,” Tschirhart said.

Chris Faricy, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, said that with the high degree of uncertainty surrounding this convention and Trump’s unpredictable and sometimes controversial style, many politicians, who tend to be risk-averse, may be playing it safe by not going to Cleveland.

“The reason that they might not show up is because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” Faricy said. “They don’t know what’s going to be said.”

On a bigger stage, former Republican presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush will not attend the RNC, though they also skipped the 2012 convention. The last two Republican nominees, U.S. Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, will also not attend.

Reynolds said it is highly unusual for Republican standard-bearers, barring illness or other special circumstances, to sit on the sidelines.

“I can’t recall a time where the elder statesmen of a party haven’t been there,” Reynolds said.

While not all factions of the party insiders are satisfied with their presumptive nominee, Trump’s ability to draw the attention of the public is undeniable. The driving force behind record viewership for primary debates, Trump has done well among Republican voters at the polls, including in his native New York, where he won more than 60 percent of the vote in a four-way race. This year’s convention is expected to draw healthy crowds of both protesters and supporters outside Quicken Loans Arena.

In addition, Trump has lined up some of his celebrity friends, including Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White, actor Antonio Sabato Jr. and former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, as speakers.

Noting that even the last-minute finalization of the list of speakers was unusual, Reynolds said Trump’s unpredictability has so far worked to his advantage. At every stage of the nominating process the presumptive nominee has defied the expectations of pollsters, party insiders and journalists.

“You never want to underestimate him,” Reynolds said.

And while some party insiders may be grumbling, Trump is again poised to make himself the focus of the nation’s attention next week, attracting many new viewers to a television event that – in a more typical election cycle – is watched primarily by politicos and dedicated party members.

“You’ve got to recognize that there has been a different dimension of attention,” Reynolds said. “It’s one that, from every bar to barber shop to coffee shop, has got conversation going about Donald Trump.”

Still, with Trump employing his off-the-cuff style, many insiders wonder whether the general public will respond positively, as is usually the case right after the convention, with the candidate normally getting a bump in the polls, Faricy said.

“It’s one thing to have eyeballs,” Faricy said. “It’s another for people to walk away with a positive message.”