Shut out of power, what will NY GOP’s strategy be?

Dead Elephant laying on its side
Dead Elephant laying on its side
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Shut out of power, what will NY GOP’s strategy be?

For now, Republican hopes depend on Democrats screwing up.
November 25, 2018

For Republicans in New York, things are looking pretty bad. The party did not exceed 40 percent in a single statewide election this month and Democrats have won sizeable majorities in the state Senate and Assembly. This means that Democrats are poised to take action on liberal priorities such as codifying Roe v. Wade, the DREAM Act, marijuana legalization, bail reform and maybe even single-payer health care.

Blocking Democrats from succeeding in those efforts will be particularly difficult because the tools available to a minority party in the state Legislature are much weaker than at the federal government level. There is no legislative filibuster in the state Senate and – unlike some other states – New York does not require a supermajority to constitute a quorum in the state Legislature or to pass a state budget. Changing these limitations by amending the state Constitution is also nearly impossible, because the party would need a majority in both houses of the Legislature, or an opportunity to hold a state constitutional convention – which will not happen for nearly 20 more years.

Republicans do have some options to hinder Democrats legislative efforts, but there appears to be little appetite to take an obstructionist approach in the legislature. “I would not encourage my colleagues to do that,” said state Sen. Fred Akshar. Instead, GOP lawmakers say they want to speak as loudly as they can in opposition to some Democratic proposals while finding common ground on other issues. Ultimately, the GOP’s political fortunes could depend on whether Democrats raise taxes and increase spending in their drive to enact progressive legislation. If that were to happen, Republicans hope it would alienate enough voters to help them win back enough Senate seats to stop Democrats from relegating them to a permanent legislative minority through redistricting.

A big X factor in this strategy is Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is expected to continue being a moderating influence on the most liberal tendencies of Democratic lawmakers. He has continued to stand by a 2 percent cap on state spending increases and opposition to raising taxes. Nonetheless, Democratic lawmakers could push him to compromise on these points. If that happens, Republicans could buttress their arguments that they are the party of fiscal discipline and low taxes rather than simply state-level acolytes of President Donald Trump, whose statewide unpopularity was blamed for Republican losses in the election.

“I think a lot of the results a couple of Tuesdays ago emanated from personal dislike to hatred for the president among the majority of New Yorkers,” said state Sen. Phil Boyle. ”We have to show as a Republican Party that we are not Donald Trump.”

Being the minority party has its drawbacks, but it does allow the Republicans to present their own policy agenda without the burden of governing. “You can speak freely about things when you don’t have to guard members,” said Republican consultant Bill O’Reilly. “There’s something liberating about that that could plant seeds for a new Republican Party in New York.”

There are not many mechanisms for Republicans to disrupt legislative business, but a close reading of Senate and Assembly rules could give them options in certain circumstances – such as the minority party deploying obscure procedural obstructionist tactics. “That stuff has never happened in Albany,” said GOP consultant Tom Doherty.

But it is possible – and it was proven effective by congressional Republicans during the Obama presidency. “It’s hard to look into the future to get that exact things that would be said or the exact strategy that would be employed,” Republican Sen. Patrick Gallivan said. “But in a general sense, I think we have to be extremely loud and demand accountability and ensure there is a process and there is debate.”

Assuming rules for the upcoming session remain the same as before, five GOP state senators could force a slow roll call during final votes. This is just one delaying maneuver that would have added potency towards the end of the legislative session when lawmakers are more rushed. If Republicans made such moves at the right time, it could also help whip up the public against Democratic legislation. But “the challenge is always making people understand” the reasons behind obstructionist moves, said Republican Assemblyman William Barclay.

Another option available is for Republicans to propose amendments to legislation in hopes of not only taking up time, but forcing Democrats to make politically difficult votes. Suppose a Republican lawmaker in either chamber proposed an amendment to an unrelated bill that included language against raising taxes. Even if didn’t pass, it could get provide the GOP with a handy attack line – that a Democratic opponent voted for raising taxes – in later elections.

Republicans could also find common ground with some Democrats to pass an amendment that would make it politically toxic to other Democrats – a “poison pill” that might prevent ultimate passage of the legislation.

But adopting an obstructionist posture in the Legislature is not as easy as it would have been had Republicans kept Democrats to a slimmer majority in the Senate. If Republicans have to convince eight or nine Democrats to pass an amendment or vote down a bill, they will have a steep hill to climb. “The ways the rules are set up in New York, the opportunity to effectively affect policy would only happen if you induce enough members of the majority party to switch over,” said James Battista, an associate professor of political science at the University at Buffalo.

Republicans do have some experience with pitting Democrats against each other. Most famously, that happened in 2011 with the formation of the Independent Democratic Conference – a group of breakaway Democratic state senators who threw control of the state Senate to the GOP. The Republicans held control even after the IDC returned to the Democratic fold earlier this year because Democratic state Sen. Simcha Felder continued to caucus with Republicans. There was also the infamous coup in 2009 when two Democrats conspired to bring back Republican control in the state Senate. “I feel like it’s going to be deja vu all over again,” Republican state Sen.-elect Daphne Jordan said hopefully.

This time around, it will be more difficult to convince many Democrats to switch sides on even just a single vote, because six out of the eight members of the IDC lost primaries and their replacements were successful in part by attacking the idea of Democrats allying with the GOP. That does not preclude Republicans from leveraging Democratic divisions in other ways, especially in the state Senate, where Republicans still are arguably within striking distance of a majority.

While the Democrats have a strong majority in the next year, their caucus may not be as united as it might appear, especially on certain issues that divide Democrats along geographic and ideological lines. This includes issues pitting New York City Democrats against their colleagues from upstate and the suburbs, such as Metropolitan Transportation Authority funding. “If there’s an extreme on one side where they try to pass some very New York City-centric legislation, it will have consequences,” said Barclay, who represents an Assembly district outside Syracuse.

Moderate Democrats might also find common ground with Republicans in stopping progressive pushes for universal rent control or single-payer health care. Swaying nine Democrats to their side to form a Republican-led majority on such issues is plausible – assuming Republicans can remain united in opposition. However, they might not even need to do much of the heavy lifting on those issues because Cuomo has already fed divisions among Democrats. In October, Cuomo reportedly got eight state Senate candidates on Long Island to sign a pledge that included a demand that “New York City pay its fair share for the MTA.” A centrist Democratic governor can be a powerful tool for Republican efforts to put a check on the Legislature, but some Republicans see how it could also endanger Republicans’ political opportunities later on. “I think the governor is going to keep control for two years,” Republican Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick of Long Island said. “So that these senators in the suburbs can be reelected.”

But Republicans can take comfort in the fact that one-party rule does not guarantee partisan cohesion nor political longevity. In the early 1970s, Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, four-term Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was at the height of his powers and Democrats were a deeply divided opposition party – much to the glee of the GOP, The New York Times reported at the time. Yet Republicans were not always in lockstep agreement with the priorities of Rockefeller following the 1972 election, when Democrats lost ground in New York and the party’s nominee also lost 49 out of 50 states in the presidential election. It was a definitely a low point for Democrats, but they would take the Assembly within a few years and Republicans would only elect one more governor in the following five decades.

Democrats achieved this turnaround by presenting new leaders with new approaches to politics. Republicans see a similar need to rebrand themselves for a new era of state politics, or else they risk becoming as irrelevant in New York as the GOP has become in California. “We must recruit strong candidates who can compete and win in every region of the state,” Republican Senate Leader John Flanagan, who survived a challenge to his leadership earlier this month, said in a statement. “We are going to spend the next two years aggressively highlighting the differences that exist between ourselves and the incoming Democrat majority.”

A robust policy agenda could prove to be Republicans’ most potent option at a time when their power in state government is at its lowest point in recent memory. “Although we don’t have the votes in either houses to stop legislation, we still have a real soap box and I suppose we will have to use that the best we can,” Barclay said.

With all the seats in the state Legislature up for election in 2020, a policy agenda with a wider appeal than what Republicans offered in 2018 could give them a good opportunity to gain seats – if not control – of the state Senate. But the upcoming election could also mean even more trouble for the state GOP in a year when Trump will likely run for reelection and Democrats will be highly motivated to turn out.

State Republican Party Chair Ed Cox – who like Flanagan survived calls to step aside over Republican losses in the 2018 elections – said that the party’s statewide candidates offer a good example of the road ahead for the GOP in New York. It’s not about obstruction but rather doubling down on offering an alternative to the policies of progressive Democrats and Cuomo alike, he said. “We’re going to be doing what we were doing in the campaign and that was, on the New York state level, pushing good policy,” he said. “It’s going to continue to be about what New York needs.”

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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