Myths of the New York Senate Race

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:36

    The departure of Mayor Rudy Giuliani from the New York Senate race generated an avalanche of commentary and coverage, much of which was misleading and some of which was simply wrong. Since there aren't many people left in journalism who are knowledgeable about either politics or New York state, this was hardly surprising. Now that the race has "reset" to a two-way contest between Hillary Clinton and U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio (the Conservative Party will support Lazio; it would have run its own candidate against Giuliani and Clinton), one of the best ways to assess the race is to look at the media myths about the contest and examine them a bit more closely. Begin with the biggest myth of all:

    Clinton Is Ahead. It is true that New York has become a reliably Democratic state in presidential election years. The last Republican presidential candidate to carry New York was Ronald Reagan in 1984, and it seems likely that Gore will carry the state by a comfortable margin this time around. It is also true that the only Republican candidate to get more than 50 percent of the vote in any U.S. Senate election in New York in the last 26 years was Al D'Amato in 1986, when he ran against the hapless Mark Green. New York state, generically, leans Democratic.

    That said, Clinton is not ahead. The most recent New York Senate race poll, conducted by John Zogby for the New York Post and Fox/Channel 5, shows Clinton "leading" Rep. Lazio by a 14-point margin (46-32 percent). But the more accurate way to read this poll is to judge each candidate against the number she or he must ultimately receive to be elected (which is 50 percent plus one vote). Looked at that way, the fact that Clinton can't get to 50 percent running against the political equivalent of a placebo is a sign of weakness, not strength.

    Clinton Enjoys a Financial Advantage. The cash-on-hand figures would seem to confirm this (Clinton has roughly $9 million, Lazio has roughly $3.5 million), but these numbers are irrelevant. At the end of the day, both candidates will raise and spend more than $20 million and it is all but certain that by the first week in November, Lazio will have raised and spent considerably more than Clinton.

    There are a number of reasons why this is true, but consider just two. First, the fundraising base of a Stop Lazio Committee (if such a thing existed) would probably be about $2 million. The fundraising base of a Stop Hillary Committee, on the other hand, is probably $20 million at a minimum. Clinton is to GOP fundraising what technology is to the NASDAQ.

    Second, Wall Street has always been decidedly ambivalent about Mayor Giuliani. They liked him because he turned New York City around. They hated him because he prosecuted a number of their colleagues in the 1980s. Wall Street fatcats feel no such ambivalence about Lazio. They assume he'll play ball.

    For these two reasons alone, it is likely that the Lazio campaign will raise more money than Mayor Giuliani might have raised had he stayed in the race. Since every dollar spent after $25 million is probably wasted money, the financial playing field is best described as even-up.

    Mike Murphy Levels the Playing Field. The New York Post's addled columnist Steve Dunleavy is the foremost proponent of the Murphy Factor, which should be reason enough to doubt it. But let's look at the particulars. It is true that Lazio has hired Murphy to "handle" his campaign. It is also true that Murphy is a gifted and engaging political consultant. But there is nothing in his recent record to suggest that his addition to the Lazio team tips the scale in a Republican direction.

    Those who point to Murphy's "handling" of the McCain campaign as evidence of his brilliance should recall that McCain was losing to Gov. George W. Bush (who is my cousin) by an overwhelming margin. Murphy's 1996 presidential candidate, Lamar Alexander, fared no better, lasting a couple of weeks during the primary season before folding his hand. And Murphy's work on behalf of Jeb Bush in the 1998 gubernatorial race was in no way decisive. Jeb Bush won that race by working his tail off for four straight years after losing to Lawton Chiles in 1994.

    Indeed, if anything, it is Clinton's consulting corps that levels the playing field. Pollster Mark Penn, ad-gal Mandy Grunwald and consigliere Harold Ickes have been working New York politics for three decades. And they're very good at it.

    Clinton Is a Carpetbagger. One rule of American politics is this: The larger the state, the less important it is where you're from. New York is the third largest state in the country. It doesn't matter at all that Clinton just moved here. A huge number of New Yorkers (particularly in New York City and Westchester County) comes from somewhere else. Indeed, the thing that keeps New York vibrant is the stream of new arrivals from across the country and around the world.

    Another rule of American politics is that the "three Rs" always matter: race, religion and region. Lazio has the edge on Clinton on religion (he's Catholic, which cuts into the traditional Democratic base), but Clinton has a regional edge. Candidates from Westchester County have fared well in statewide elections. Candidates from Long Island (D'Amato being the exception that proves the rule) rarely even get nominated.

    Interestingly, Lazio made the "carpetbagger issue" the centerpiece of his weekend whirlwind announcement tour. He went on and on about it. This takes us back to the Murphy Factor. A better political consultant wouldn't have given his client such material. He or she would have had Lazio addressing the real concern about Clinton's candidacy, which is that it is entirely self-interested. It's not about us, it's about her.

    The GOP Is United Behind Lazio. This is another of those assertions that are less true the deeper you go. It is true that all the leading Republicans in the Giuliani drama hated one another (and continue to do so). D'Amato resents Pataki and vice versa. Giuliani hates D'Amato and vice versa. Pataki hates Giuliani and vice versa. National Republicans are baffled by all of it.

    The fact that everyone has lined up publicly behind Lazio's candidacy is a positive indicator for the GOP. But keeping these people (and their factions) on the same page will be difficult and it is all but certain that ugly power-grabs will break out in the near future.

    In the event that Lazio fails to improve his poll numbers (relative to 50 percent plus one) over the course of the summer, the game of "I'm the real kingmaker" will soon transform itself into a game of "He's to blame." Should that happen, the festering hatreds will erupt. The best way to measure Republican unity today is to compare it to what it was like during the Rockefeller regime. In those days, you toed the line or walked the plank. Today, everybody's a free agent.

    Clinton Is Too Liberal. The evidence for this is simply nonexistent. New York is a fairly liberal state by national standards. Clinton is a fairly liberal Democrat by national standards. Put the two together and you've got a candidate who might be a point or so to the left of the New York ideological norm, but by no means off the chart. She's well within the range of electability.

    Conservative columnists are forever harping on Clinton's disastrous attempt to "reform" national health care as evidence of her "socialist" leanings. Fair enough. But defending the status quo isn't a winning position and there's no evidence that Lazio has any inkling of how genomics-based medicine will completely alter the future of health care in America. Which means that health care, as an issue, will boil down to "cutting Medicare" (which means slowing the rate of its growth), which is a winning issue for Democrats.

    Again, the issue with Clinton is not that she's too liberal, moderate or conservative. It's that she doesn't believe in anything. Republicans and conservatives who harp on her "positions" miss the point. She doesn't have "positions." She only believes in things that advance her agenda, which is the acquisition of power.

    It's an Important Race. It's not, actually. If Clinton wins, the seat remains Democratic. If Clinton loses, then the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate is arguably more secure. The race is of relatively little importance to most New Yorkers, since minority members of the Senate are, in the main, minor players and freshman members of the majority have to work their way up the ladder.

    The more important race, interestingly enough, is the one to replace Lazio in the U.S. House. Many analysts believe that control of the U.S. House of Representatives could well boil down to 10 races across the country. One of those races will almost certainly be in New York's Second Congressional District. It's Lazio's replacement who matters in the big picture, not Lazio himself.