The Republican Party is closing ranks around Mitt Romney for president, but it will be a mix of the establishment and insurgents at the New York Republican Party annual dinner in Manhattan Thursday night.
Newt Gingrich will be there, along with Louisana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a darling of the national party.
The head table will be slim on New York stars, though. Republicans hold no statewide offices, and neither former Gov George Pataki or former Mayor Rudy Giuliani are making it. But, Gubernatorial nominee and party critic Carl Paladino will be there.
The mixed crowd parallels a debate about strategy and priorities within the state Republican Party, even in one of the bright spots for the New York Republican Party: Ozone Park, Queens.
This is where Republicans won an unlikely victory to fill Anthony Weiner’s vacant seat last year. It’s also home to 27 year-old Councilman Eric Ulrich, one of the most talked about Republican leaders.
“This is a Democratic town, Democratic city, Democratic state,” he said as we walked around his district last week. Ulrich stands out because he won among all these Democrats. He calls himself an independent Republican – the sort who sees Giuliani as a role model but crosses the aisle to back rent regulations.
He's the grandson of a union steamfitter and was the first Republican in his family. He was tapped last year to be the city Chairman of Mitt Romney’s campaign, but as the primary season wraps up, he’s not feeling great about his party.
“We are still in this soul-searching stage, but I think we've been there for far too long,” he said. “And we've allowed other people to identify us instead of identifying ourselves.”
In New York, though, it's not clear who gets to lead the Republican rebranding. Will it be urban moderates like Ulrich, or Republican activists upstate, where most of the recent pickups in the Congress and state Senate have been won?
Most often in politics, a charismatic candidate emerges to settle party splits. In New York City, Ulrich doesn't see that happening before the 2013 mayor's race.
“I don’t see any Republican right now that can win,” he said. “If I were a betting man, I would say the next mayor will be a Democrat.”
That would be the first time in twenty years that a Democrat were to occupy Gracie Mansion.
Upstate New York Tea Party Chairman Mark Barie said there is similar pessimism about Albany.
“I think Andrew Cuomo has the right combination for his base and for independents and he's probably destined to get reelected,” Barie said.
Barie is part of the other upstart wing in New York Republican politics. He dove into politics in 2009, when his group backed an outsider candidate in a special Congressional election, and pushing the moderate establishment candidate out of the race. A year later, he supported Carl Paladino.
Neither of them won, but the Tea Party got attention, Barie said, because they filled a vacuum in local Republican organization.
“It’s nothing for Republican Parties or committees across the state to struggle to just get their petitions circulated, so along comes the Tea Party with the ability to get the petitions circulated, and suddenly we’re a potent political force.”
But Barie acknowledges all that's tamped down this year, because of Gov Cuomo’s popularity.
“Because he has gone to the right quite a bit, he’s taken some of that fire in our belly and put it out,” Barie said.
So in local races this year, he wants to win what he can. He's endorsed Matt Donehey for Congress who he says isn't a “conservative conservative,” but is better than the tax-and-spend liberal” on the Democratic side.
This pragmatic shift does not mean he's getting folded into the state party. They're still keeping their distance.
“You know, like the skunk in the wood pile, they’ll put up with it because they don’t want to get sprayed but that’s about it.”
Despite these splits, state party chairman Ed Cox paints a decidedly more rosey picture, especially at the local level.
“We’re winning here in New York state,” he declared last week, ticking off wins in local races in 2010 and 2011.
In 2012, Republicans will also get some help from a new SuperPAC set up by former Gov. Pataki. The party can’t coordinate, but Cox welcomes the effort.
“While they are carrying on the media war, as a SuperPAC, we will be doing the get out the vote war,” Cox said. “And together that’s something we didn’t have two years ago.”
But the state party also has a smaller percentage of registered voters than it did two years ago. It’s been shrinking over the last decade and now stands at under 25 percent.
So while the Republicans wait for a candidate who can transcend party lines, whether a conservative upstater or an urban moderate, Ulrich worries that the party won't be ready.
“It’s not only about attracting Democrats,” he said. “It’s actually growing the party. It’s attracting people to the rank and file of the Republican Party. And we are not doing that as a party. I’ve been doing that. I know other individuals who are doing that, but as a party that has not been our focus. That needs to be our focus."
One way to that, Ulrich says, is much better relationships with new immigrants – and he’s pushing for New York Republicans to back comprehensive immigration reform. Of course, that gets at another split – with Mitt Romney, the presidential candidate he’s championing.