Rise of the GOP in Western New York spurs talk of a new party chairman

At the moment when Donald Trump Jr. announced the 89 delegate votes from New York that formally made his father, Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, he, his siblings and state GOP Chairman Ed Cox were joined on the floor of the Republican National Convention by several prominent Western New Yorkers.

Carl Paladino, the bombastic and sometimes controversial former gubernatorial candidate, stood off to the side, visible in the forefront as the crucial votes were delivered, smiling and looking up at one of the massive monitors. Erie County’s GOP boss, Nick Langworthy, was positioned a few rows back, periodically peering over the shoulders of the Trumps. Rep. Chris Collins, while not among the group while the votes were submitted, had a public role in seconding Trump’s nomination and spent time throughout the week in the family’s personal box.

That proximity is months in the making, as these Western New Yorkers were early supporters of the once-unlikely candidate and helped him orchestrate a decisive victory in his home state, where the nominee posted more than 60 percent of the vote in the primary and took 61 of the state’s 62 counties.

Now, as state Republicans prepare for the uphill battle of helping Trump win his home state – New York has been written off by GOP presidential nominees for decades, and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton held a 12-point lead in a recent poll – there is growing talk of a possible transfer of power that reflects Western New York’s recent track record and newfound prominence.

Langworthy, the leader of the Erie County GOP, is a possible candidate to succeed Cox, several sources told City & State.

“It’s likely Nick (Langworthy) is going to take on some new responsibilities in the future,” said Paladino, who serves is the honorary co-chairman of Trump’s campaign. “He’s well respected by all the county chairs and he’s been very upfront with them. I think that’s the kind of leadership the party needs.”

One Western New York GOP operative said that Langworthy could be a frontrunner because he has proven that he can get Republicans elected in countywide elections in Erie County, which, like New York state, has a roughly 2-to-1 Democratic enrollment advantage. Under Langworthy’s watch, several GOP candidates have won office, including Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw and Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs, who is now running for state Senate in the heavily Democratic 60th District.

Sitting next to Paladino in the front row of the New York delegation’s  prime spot on the convention floor on Wednesday, Langworthy was coy when asked about the possibility of becoming the next state party chairman.

“I get along very well with chairman Cox,” Langworthy said. “We have an excellent relationship right now and there’s not a vacancy.”

Yet Langworthy said he believes he has an effective strategy for winning in constituencies where his party, at least on paper, is heavily outnumbered. With party figures like Paladino and Astorino waiting in the wings to take more shots at statewide office, Langworthy sees a stronger role for the chairman in the near future, be it Cox or Cox's successor.

“I’m optimistic in New York state right now, that we have people looking at statewide offices,” Langworthy said. “There’s a bench. We’re not waiting until five minutes before the convention.”

Asked about the possibility of new state Republican Party leadership, Cox responded that the 2017 race for mayor of  New York City, the state’s population center, will play an important role in making Republicans competitive statewide.

“We have a chance, if he’s not indicted first, to defeat Mayor de Blasio,” Cox said. “We are working very hard on that. … The momentum we get from winning New York City in 2017 carries over to 2018.”

If the Republicans could retake the city, Cox said, it could set the stage for winning statewide races  – something the party has not done since George Pataki’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign – as well as more state and local races. With such a deficit in New York City for Republicans, he added, it’s important to lay the groundwork with the mayoral campaign in order to figure out a game plan for the 2018 races.

In 2014, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino only won 13 percent of the vote in Manhattan as the Republican gubernatorial candidate.

“What we build for the mayor’s race carries over to the other, so we win the governor’s race,” Cox said.

Still, the impatience of upstate Republicans with their downstate counterparts has been evident in recent years.

Last year, rumors had circulated that Onondaga County Chairman Tom Dadey, who has been floated as a possible replacement for Cox, would challenge him at the meeting where officers are elected. The revolt fizzled and Cox was unanimously re-elected.

A few months earlier, a similar battle took place in the state Senate. After Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos stepped down in the face of corruption allegations, a skirmish broke out over who would replace him. Longtime Syracuse-area state Sen. John DeFrancisco made a push for the post, but was ultimately beat out by Skelos’ fellow Long Islander John Flanagan.

In Cleveland, Paladino told reporters that he believes the next chairman should come from upstate.

“It has to be an upstater, because to rally our county chairs you’ve got to speak the language,” Paladino told City & State, while stressing that there was no imminent push to oust Cox. “So I think it’s got to be someone from upstate New York. That’s where all the votes are. That’s where the Republican base is.”

Indeed, there are just over 460,000 registered Republicans in the five boroughs of New York City, leaving them outnumbered by Democrats 6 to 1. In the rest of the state Republicans trail Democrats more narrowly, with 2.7 million Democrats and 2.2 million Republicans, figures from the state Board of Elections show. The figures include the heavily populated Long Island, which is relatively evenly split between Republicans and Democrats but also often considered as part of downstate New York.  

“This idea that New York City Culture has to influence the dynamics of upstate New York,” Paladino said, “is very unfair to upstate.”