Cuomo’s elite-Republican strategy

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George Pataki and Andrew Cuomo. (AP Photo/Jim Fitzgerald)
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This weekend, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino toured the Saratoga Arms Fair, receiving a warm welcome from gun enthusiasts still angry over the current governor’s successful push for passage of the SAFE Act.

Meanwhile, Andrew Cuomo spent his Sunday morning courting an entirely different type of Republican.

Cuomo called in to the inaugural radio show hosted on 970 AM by John Catsimatidis, a Democrat-turned-Republican billionaire supermarket mogul who ran an unsuccessful mayoral campaign last fall.

The 13-minute interview was a mutual love-fest.

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“I’ve been telling all our friends that the fact that you’re putting your foot down on raising taxes is [something] that Republicans, Democrats and all independents should all commend,” said Catsimatidis, a longtime Cuomo supporter and donor. “And I commend you on that.”

“I’m excited for you about this venture, and I’m proud of you for doing it,” Cuomo responded.

“These are tough times, they’re tricky times, there’s a lot going on,” he said. “And honest debate and honest dialogue is what we need, and that’s what you’re all about.”

Also appearing on Catsimatidis’ show Sunday were two of the state’s highest-profile Republicans: George Pataki (who praised Cuomo for defending charter schools against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio) and Rudy Giuliani.

As he prepares for his first re-election bid, Cuomo is intensifying his push for high-ranking Republican support, focusing on deep-pocketed donors and Republican insiders for whom his fiscal conservatism trumps his liberal record on social issues like gay marriage and abortion.

Since January, “Republicans for Cuomo”—a group chaired by Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone—has held at least three events at which the governor pitched potential G.O.P. supporters, wooing them with talk of spending and tax cuts and economic development incentives.

That argument is an easy sell for people like Mike Balboni, a former Republican state senator from Long Island who is now a lobbyist representing a variety of clients, including some who have business with the state.

“I’ve been able to work well with the administration in terms of getting an audience,” said Balboni, who co-hosted a “Republicans for Cuomo” fundraiser last week at The Pierre hotel in Manhattan for which tickets went as high as $50,000 a head.

“Do they do what I want them to do all the time? No,” Balboni continued. “But as a citizen, have my taxes gone up? Have jobs left the state? Not that I’ve seen.”

“There’s a whole bunch of things where you can sit there and say, ‘Am I better off today than I was four years ago with Andrew Cuomo?’ And I can honestly say, ‘yes.’”

He could hardly have put it better, for Cuomo—or worse, for Astorino, whose whole bid is based on that Reaganesque “are you better off now than four years ago” argument.

(“New York is No. 1 in all the wrong things under this governor,” Astorino said in his campaign announcement video. “We have the highest taxes in the country, the worst business climate, the most corrupt government and the second-highest electric rates anywhere.”)

The idea behind Cuomo’s GOP push is both to deprive Astorino of the most fertile ground for attack from the right, discouraging would-be supporters and starving his challenger of much-needed campaign cash.

Also, talent: Cuomo recently hired Republican strategist Susan del Percio to serve as a special adviser to his administration. (Before del Percio agreed to sign on with the Cuomo administration, she was co-directing Balance New York, a group that aims to serve as a counterweight to organized labor in the coming elections and help the Senate Republicans win back the majority that they now share with the Independent Democratic Conference.)

And Cuomo continues to maintain a strong relationship with the State Senate Republicans, declining to offer even a gesture of help to the Democrats hope to re-take control from the current coalition running the chamber.

The governor’s close working relationship with the Senate’s Republican conference has served him well to date, bringing him victories on issues that burnished his liberal credentials but did the lawmakers no favors with their conservative base. Now he’s poised to potentially score additional victories in this budget battle–-most notably on a public campaign finance system, which Senate Republicans have repeatedly insisted they would not consider, but are now showing signs of considering.

Bill O’Reilly, who was once del Percio’s business partner, is now running Astorino’s gubernatorial campaign. He suggested Cuomo’s insider-Republican strategy wouldn’t matter.

“There’s a huge number of Republicans that can’t stand crony capitalism, and they’re seeing it everywhere,” O’Reilly said. “For every funder we lose, we’ll gain more voters. ... This isn’t going to affect the average Republican voter at all. ”

Certainly, it won’t matter much in terms of Cuomo’s chances of actually losing the race, or even getting a serious challenge.

But with a massive advantage in terms of name-recognition and campaign cash overall posi-tioning, Cuomo’s not just trying to win. He wants to achieve an overwhelming, comprehen-sive, bipartisan victory, the better to set the stage for a future run for national office.

That’s where the poll numbers count, and right now those numbers show that Cuomo’s brand of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism isn’t sitting well with rank-and-file Republican voters.

Shortly after taking office in January 2011, Cuomo’s favorable rating with Republicans stood at an unusually high 60 percent, according to the Siena poll. But a poll released last month showed 56 percent of Republicans now view Cuomo unfavorably, compared to 42 percent who see him in a positive light.

The question at some point in the not-too-distant future will be whether Cuomo’s high-placed Republican friends can do anything to help him move those numbers back in the direction of his impossibly high post-election popularity.

Cuomo’s bipartisan appeal will constitute a major part of his narrative if and when he mounts that national run. He talks often of Albany having left its dysfunctional days behind (three on-time budgets in a row!) while Washington remains hopelessly deadlocked by political infighting.

Some Republican donors and leaders are willing to validate that narrative. But a growing number of regular Republican voters seem disinclined, for now, to play along.

Liz Benjamin hosts "Capital Tonight" each weeknight on the Time Warner Cable News stations across upstate New York.