When 2010 dawned, New York Republicans had every reason to think they’d be in on the GOP wave. Eliot Spitzer had resigned in disgrace, and his successor wasn’t looking so hot. Hillary Clinton had vacated her Senate seat for a Cabinet spot, and her appointed successor, Kirsten Gillibrand, was frantically flip-flopping to curry favor with New York’s liberal Democratic electorate; her vulnerabilities—her poll numbers falling short of 50 percent—had all sorts of would-be challengers licking their chops. And history suggested good things; after all, the Empire State has produced, in Teddy Roosevelt, Nelson Rockefeller, and Rudy Giuliani, some of the biggest Republican stars in the country.
But this November, that promise turned to ash, as the GOP failed to carry even one statewide race during one of the best election years Republicans have ever had. The party’s hopes of re-capturing the statehouse in the wake of David Paterson’s sorry tenure were dashed in a particularly cruel way; not only did Democrat Andrew Cuomo win going away, but his Republican opponent, Carl Paladino, became a national joke.
And so, as Republicans prepare to take power in the U.S. House, the blame game for blowing a golden opportunity is still very much under way in these parts. The guy losing that game: party chairman Edward Finch Cox, 63, previously best known for being Richard Nixon’s son-in-law. This year in New York wasn’t exactly Watergate. But when Cuomo wins by almost 30 points, Gillibrand (now a Vogue magazine sensation) stomps an also-ran, and the GOP nominee for controller goes down despite the endorsement of every major newspaper, you get the picture.
The wags at the New York Post called for Cox to step aside, describing the state party as a “sad joke” and tagging the chairman as “pathetically ineffectual.” A party shakeup is already under way; the spokesman stepped down last week.
Astonishingly, Cox says he wants to hang on to his job—and even stands by Paladino, whose angry-man antics helped Cuomo capture the governorship going away.
“You can’t win or lose a campaign because of one person, but I don’t think, quite frankly, they did anything right,” says former state GOP Chairman Bill Powers.
“He was a very robust social conservative, who really appealed to the Republican base and the Tea Party folk,” Cox says of Paladino. And Republicans poke fun at Nancy Pelosi for not getting the message.
Bill Powers, who served as party chairman from 1991 to 2001, speaks kindly of Cox. But it’s a struggle. Powers says he was particularly shocked that Cox backed gubernatorial candidate Steve Levy—the longtime Democratic county executive who switched parties this year—at the convention, only to see perennial candidate Rick Lazio secure the party’s nod.
“He’s got to get a better team of people with him,” Powers says. “You can’t win or lose a campaign because of one person, but I don’t think, quite frankly, they did anything right.”
Cox courted further criticism when he allowed his son, Chris, 31, to mount a bid for New York’s First Congressional District. Chris lost in the primary, but some rank-and-file Republicans wonder if the favorite-son’s campaign cost the party another chance at flipping a blue seat red. Others were more concerned about the candidates not on the ballot. Cox wasn’t able to recruit any big-ticket challengers to Cuomo, Gillibrand, or senior Sen. Chuck Schumer, who also won in a walk.
Then again, it’s tough to tell a man that he should leave his job when he says he never really wanted it in the first place. Last September, Cox took over the helm of the state party over the objection of GOP poobahs like Giuliani and George Pataki, once-and-maybe future GOP presidential hopefuls. Looking back, Cox says that should have tried harder to talk himself out of taking the assignment.
“I tried to convince other people to take this job,” he says. “When no one would take it, I said, ‘I will do it.’”
Cox has a host of excuses when it comes to the statewide debacle. The Republican National Committee came around only to meddle with his plans, he said. Michael Steele backed Rick Lazio before the convention, undermining his leadership. “It’s quite extraordinary that they would do it,” Cox says.
When the RNC did show up, they came with far too little funding.
“The Republican National Committee was basically broken. It couldn’t contribute the way it normally would,” Cox says.
While the RNC was hindering his efforts, Cox says, major Republicans—like Pataki’s right-hand man, Mike McKeon, and former fundraiser Cathy Blaney—were backing Cuomo. Cox says he couldn’t persuade some major Republican donors that anyone could upset the hard-charging attorney general, so he couldn’t get them to open their wallets for his operation.
Cox does have his defenders. Republican gadfly Roger Stone, who advised both Paladino and New York madam Kristin Davis in the governor’s race, says critics underestimate the difficulty of the job. “It’s fun and easy to scapegoat Ed Cox for everything that went on, but it’s a very tall mountain to climb,” Stone says.
(For what it’s worth, Stone and Cox share the same political hero. The 58-year-old operative has a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back.)
In his defense, Cox points to the other deep blue states. By his count, in the top six most-Democratic states (Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Connecticut, California, and Illinois), only one Republican won a statewide race—Mark Kirk, who will take Barack Obama’s old seat in the Senate. “I saw this Republican tidal wave for some time,” Cox says, “and it’s something you would expect would engulf all the states. But the bluest of blue states, they were just impervious to it. There may have been a riptide effect, where the unions turned out their people very strongly in their get out the vote campaigns. You have to put this in perspective.” To be fair, Cox’s year wasn’t a total washout. Six congressional seats of 29 switched from Democrat to Republican. Cox delivered this news with special relish in his memo to county chairs sent on Nov. 5 (“On Tuesday, we made history.”) The GOP also took a majority in the state senate, giving the party the upper hand when it comes to shaping redistricting plans.
But all that comes as pretty cold comfort when you’ve had the kind of year Cox just had. When beaten, you can try spinning defeat as victory. Call Cuomo’s landslide a win for the GOP.
“He stole our Republican clothes,” Cox says. “He went out as a fiscal conservative, and he talked the Republican talk.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.