The Rob Astorino plausibility tour

Rob Astorino. (Jimmy Vielkind)
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BINGHAMTON—Rob Astorino, at least, feels that Andrew Cuomo is vulnerable.  

Sitting in the front seat of a Lincoln sedan as it sped through the Southern Tier on a sunny, frigid Friday, the 46-year-old Republican county executive of Westchester said that Cuomo had simply “managed the decline” of New York, and is a “creature” of a broken government that has presided over an outmigration of people and jobs from upstate regions like this one.

Astorino, who is the favored standard-bearer of state G.O.P. leaders, cited several attack points that play well here, related to Cuomo's indecision about natural gas hydrofracking, Cuomo's tough gun control bill, and, even as the governor retreats from it, “Cuomo's Common Core."

“I have no idea what his core beliefs are, Astorino said, arm planted firmly on his seat-rest. "I have no idea where he stands on anything. I think he's so poll-driven, he'll do anything to get elected as opposed to being ... ”

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Astorino paused, breathed, and re-set.

“I'd rather lose a race and stand on my principles than win a race and cave and give in to something I'm not,” he said.

It was around 5 o'clock on what had been another full day of campaigning that is only nominally unofficial. There were interviews on each of the local affiliates, 20 minutes in the car to a meet-and-greet in Tioga County, then 20 minutes back to this city of 46,000, which blossomed in the last century as the original headquarters of IBM.

Astorino is likely to announce his run formally this week, but it's unclear whether he'll get much of a boost from it.

Quite apart from the question of how much it's worth to have the nomination against Cuomo, there's the question, still, of whether Astorino's going to get it. 

Donald Trump continues to make noise about running, mostly dismissed as his usual posturing but loud enough to distract from whatever much-needed attention Astorino might otherwise derive from his announcement.

Carl Paladino, who led the GOP ticket in 2010, is threatening a third-party bid if Astorino doesn't denounce Republican legislative leaders who he feels have been too cozy with Cuomo.

Cuomo, for his part, has assiduously courted Republican donors and, according to people familiar with his actions, warned GOP legislators that nominating Astorino would unleash a war chest that should easily exceed $40 million. Astorino has $1 million, and would most likely only raise a small fraction of that amount.

Astorino, who has already called on Trump to end the “circus,” answered a question about the reality-TV boss impatiently.

“I don't see any situation,” he said in the car, beginning before his questioner could finish. “It makes no difference whatsoever. Every donor I have talked to has not even thought of Donald Trump. The specter of him running or not hasn't even crossed their mind. … To be honest with you, I would ignore anyone who was considering running. That's fine. If they're going to run, they run. … It wouldn't make a difference to me if it was Joe Blow or Donald Trump.”

The problem is that Trump can damage Astorino's already slim chances just by hanging around.

“The longer things lay out there and people don't close ranks—just ask Mitt Romney about this—and when you're going through a primary where the appeal is to the hard right to win, there's the potential for more mischief,” said Rick Lazio, a former Republican congressman and U.S. Senate nominee who struggled through a 2010 gubernatorial bid against challenges by then-Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy (who he beat) and Paladino (who he did not). “In my experience, New York is a big and complex state and time becomes the enemy. Every week where you have the lack of a clear path to the nomination, it makes fund-raising harder, people hold back, and everything just becomes more difficult.”

The question of rank-and-file officials is harder. Cuomo has courted GOP senators and key officials like Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano. As Newsday's Dan Janison wrote, “It is hard to imagine Mangano, or Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) or his Long Island colleagues reversing the tone of the past three years so sharply that they'd suddenly lead a charge to reject Cuomo. And Nassau is the county with the most registered Republicans (330,442) in the state.”

Astorino says it's his job—not theirs—to make that case.

“Ultimately, people are going to decide based upon who they think will put people back to work and really, in a meaningful way, reduce taxes,” he said. “The pure politics of this, a strong gubernatorial candidate at the top of a Republican ticket will mean Republican wins all down-ballot. Just go back to 2010 and the results weren't all that good … when you had a lopsided victory by the governor. They know that. That's politics 101. If I win, I guarantee you we're going to win all up and down.”

ON HIS WAY TO THE OWEGO TREADWAY INN, Astorino made his case on taxes--perhaps the key issue in George Pataki's upset win over the current governor's father back in 1994.

He said that local property taxes are the bane of any New Yorker living beyond the five boroughs--he pays $16,000 a year, he says--and that they should be thought of as state property taxes, and pinned on Cuomo. He was a county legislator and has been county executive since 2009, when he won an unexpected win over Democrat Andy Spano, and like many counterparts around the state knows the exact amount of his county's levy that gets eaten up by state-mandated programs like Medicaid and employee pensions: 85 percent.

“The state has to start prioritizing, and taking back the costs, or figuring out what works and what doesn't and doing it more efficiently. But to just dump the costs continuously on the local level is having a very detrimental effect,” he said, adding that things have gotten “worse” under Cuomo.

This is a perennial complaint for county leaders, and Cuomo has taken steps to address it. He pushed for a less-generous pension package for newly hired workers, which will reduce burdens in the long term, and a system that lets municipalities amortize their payments to get through a current spike. The state, under Cuomo, has also consolidated Medicaid administration, and is gradually freezing the local share of health spending program.

I pushed Astorino on the Medicaid point, which is the biggest area of state spending, to see how he would deal with that cost. He said he would not have accepted temporary federal money to expand eligibility for the program—part of Obamacare—but didn't have many specifics on a plan to rein in its costs.

“There's no incentive for counties to go after fraud and waste, because nobody reaps the benefit of it. It goes back to the state,” he said.

OK. But what, other than targeting fraud, would he do? Are there services now covered that shouldn't be covered?

“We've just got to look overall at everything, every program that's in place right now under state government, in a real way. That's what we did in Westchester—we prioritized, we didn't perpetuate,” he replied.

IT'S PERHAPS TOO EARLY IN A RACE TO EXPECT ASTORINO, or any candidate, to have a fully formed plan on a subject as complex as Medicaid. He seems to have figured that the smart posture is to run sideways, like Pataki did, on a small number of critical issues. Those issues, this year, seem to be Common Core, the SAFE Act, hydrofracking and the state's fiscal climate.

For the third time in six months, a monthly Siena Research Institute poll showed Cuomo's job approval rating was underwater, at 48-51 percent, a drop fueled by the loss of upstate and Republican voters over the course of 2013, crosstabs show.

Astorino—and any Republican—knows the basic formula for his election is to run up the score upstate (where between 40-50 percent of the electorate lives), try not to get creamed in New York City and fight to the death on Long Island and the northern suburbs, his home turf. He said he proved he could do this in Westchester, overcoming an enrollment deficit by running better than other Republicans in urban areas with concentrated minority populations (he got 25 percent of the vote in Mt. Vernon) and reaching out to Hispanics (he traveled to Puerto Rico for the annual “Somos El Futuro” conference).

But he hasn't got a clear way in. He'll have to fight to pin Common Core, a system educational testing overseen by the theoretically independent State Education Department, on Cuomo. The SAFE Act is a winning issue upstate, but a losing one in the suburbs and downstate, polls show. Hydrofracking is mixed in the polls, even upstate, but it drives the GOP base and opens the door to business donors. Fiscal climate, possibly the biggest issue, is tougher to gauge: The February Siena survey showed 48 percent of New Yorkers say the state is on the “right track,” up considerably from before Cuomo took office but down a bit from last year. Still, 54 percent of voters said they were prepared to re-elect Cuomo, and for what it's worth at this stage, the governor beat Astorino in a head-to-head matchup by 42 points.

And then there are other issues which Democrats will put in play, most notably abortion rights. Since Nelson Rockefeller signed a law legalizing abortion here in 1970, New York has not elected a pro-life governor, and a June poll showed voters, after several questions explaining the legislation, supported a Cuomo-backed proposal to change abortion law and establish an affirmative right to an abortion by a 56-31 margin.

In January, Astorino dismissed abortion as a “straw man” argument, and indicated he would not make major changes to rights of access in the state.

“Serious candidates running for state-wide office respect New Yorker’s beliefs in ensuring women’s access to comprehensive reproductive health care services – including abortion,” M. Tracey Brooks, the president of Planned Parenthood Advocates, said then in a statement comparing Astorino to “radical statements of the national Republican Party” and saying his “position reflects his inability to represent the people of the state of New York.”

At his Owego event with the Tioga County GOP, Astorino stood in front of the podium and shook hands with the roughly 40 people seated at tables in front of soda, coffee, and a few-frills nacho bar. When Gary L. Perry, a Paladino-allied activist, started bending his ear in the parking lot before he could even close the car door, he responded to harried urgings with a simple statement and a thank you. In nearly 40 minutes of interviews with Capital, he didn't turn around in his seat.

Longtime friends attest to Astorino's discipline, which comes from someone whose first career was in broadcasting. He helped launch ESPN radio in New York City and later served as program director of the Catholic channel on Sirius XM. The sensibility carries on: He ducked into a bathroom to brush his teeth after an interview, before the Owego event, he was usually wearing the nicest suit in the room and his hair was gelled neatly in place. If he weren't in politics, he said, he would still be in a media career that began in high school.

“Growing up watching football and anything, I was more paying attention to the announcers, knowing I wouldn't have been a player,” said Astorino, a trim, 5'7'' adult. “I got a bad case of mono in high school, and so my spleen was really enlarged, and I couldn't play contact sports. ... I was home from school for six weeks, and a couple of friends asked me if I wanted to run for class president, and they circulated a petition, and the next thing I know I was elected class president. And I also started a cable access show about high school sports.”

THE MAIN EVENT OF THIS TRIP WAS THE BROOME County GOP's annual Lincoln Day banquet, where over 400 people paid $60 a plate of beef, chicken or pasta primavera in the large ballroom of the city's Double Tree. Officials from nearby towns were there, as were old business colleagues of State Senator Tom Libous, who chatted politely with Astorino on the elevated head table.

It was the biggest crowd in several years, according to Bijoy Datta, a 35-year-old former Libous aide who now chairs the county GOP committee. Republican State Chairman Ed Cox brought the state party's top staff, and chairmen from counties as far away as Oswego are there, as well as a regional fund-raiser from Syracuse.

Astorino started his speech by asking whether New York is “winning or losing,” and then made the case for "losing." He drew applause with his embrace of fracking, and his attack on the Common Core. A joke about letting the state's Democratic legislators, several of whom are under federal indictment, take advantage of Cuomo's recent initiative to let prison inmates take college classes fell flat.

When he spoke about his record in Westchester, he gave equal weight to what he's done in office and how he won against the odds. Twice during the trip, officials noted that Astorino was quite literally sitting in the same seats that Pataki did in 1994.

“Twenty years later,” said Libous, “lightning could strike again.”

Astorino closed be speaking about the math behind his re-election in Westchester, even in a county that is “home of the Clintons, and the Hollywood elite.”

Many Democrats, and even some Republicans, puzzle over why anyone would challenge Cuomo this year, with his massive financial advantage and the Democrats' structural enrollment advantage. There is speculation that Astorino knows how likely his effort is to fail, and is running anyway in hope of a better shot in 2018. 

Astorino wasn't having it.

“A conservative Republican governing like a conservative Republican can still win in New York,” he told the audience. “The way to win the center is to lead and deliver results. That's what we have done in Westchester County, that's what needs to be done in New York State again, and I'm here to spread that word.”