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Republicans Bracing for 'Historic' Primary

By Jill Colvin | February 6, 2013 9:51am

NEW YORK CITY — The city’s Republican Party is bracing for a competitive mayoral primary, marking an “historic” moment in a city where Republicans are often left scrambling for candidates.

For the first time in decades, the GOP is expecting a race with a potential field of more than half a dozen rivals, including former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, billionaire supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, Doe Fund founder George McDonald, publisher Tom Allon and Former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr.

Others are also floating their names, including State Sen. Malcolm Smith and Brooklyn megachurch pastor Rev. A.R. Bernard.

“Six months ago, everyone was decrying the fact that there were no Republicans,” said Manhattan Republican Party Chairman Daniel Isaacs, who has voiced support for Catsimatidis.

"Now our cup runneth over."

After weeks of holding out hope that they would coalesce behind a single candidate, the five GOP county chairs appeared to come to terms at a meeting Monday night that a primary was all but guaranteed.

While three of the five chairs must give their blessing to permit a Democrat or Independent to gather petitions to run on their party line, any registered Republican can throw their hat into the race, whether the county leaders like it or not.

“It's becoming more and more apparent to us that there will be a Republican primary," said Staten Island GOP Chairman Bob Scamardella, who has yet to formally endorse a candidate but is leaning toward Lhota.

“The notion that all of the chairmen are going to coalesce behind a single candidate doesn’t appear to be in the cards.”

But while crowded Democratic primaries are common in the city, competitive Republican contests are “extraordinarily rare," said Baruch College Professor Doug Muzzio, who called the contest "historic."

He said the last in recollection was the 1989 race between Rudy Giuliani and the wealthy Ronald Lauder, who ran an “absolutely vicious” primary, Muzzio said.

While Giuliani beat Lauder by a landslide, he went on to narrowly lose to David Dinkins in the general mayoral election — an outcome some have blamed on the primary, Muzzio said.

The last competitive race before that was likely Theodore Roosevelt’s 1886 primary, Muzzio said.

In 1981, the party was so short on candidates that it didn’t even bother to put up a candidate, endorsing Democrat Ed Koch instead.

“I can’t recall when — if ever — the Republican Party has been in this kind of position," agreed Isaacs. "It’s uncharted territory."

Long-shot GOP candidate Tom Allon, a former Democrat who ironically switched his party registration last fall when the Democratic field was bursting and the Republican field was bare, also marveled at the reversal.

“When I got into this GOP pool in October, it seemed like it would be a pretty un-crowded pool," he said.

"Now it looks like it’s going to be more crowded than July 4th on Jones Beach."

But whether a heated race will be a benefit or liability remains to be seen.

Muzzio said having multiple candidates is typically good for a party’s brand, but not necessarily a boon to the candidates.

On the plus side, a primary can help a candidate get into sparring shape, helping them hone their message and iron out kinks.

On the flip side, it can be deeply damaging.

“You get your head beat in. And even though you succeed, it comes back to haunt you,” he said, pointing to Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney’s loss after he veered right during the primary to appeal to a more conservative base.

Scamardella said that, while the county chairs would have liked to avoid a primary to rally behind a single candidate, he’s long worried about the prospect of a lone Democratic primary dominating the airwaves through the fall.

“I’m one who doesn’t believe a primary is necessarily a bad thing,” he said, arguing the ensuing press coverage would help introduce voters to the eventual Republican candidate.

Isaacs said he would have preferred it if the chairs had coalesced around a single candidate, but argued the competition serves as proof the Republican Party remains relevant — even in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 6-to-1. He also said it's an indication of the weakness of the Democratic field.

"I think it speaks volumes that we all of a sudden have a number of impressive candidates," he said, adding that he hoped the contest would push the Democratic candidates to discuss a wider range of issues.

"They don’t say much," he said.

But Democratic strategists, meanwhile, laughed off the idea that a Republican might have a chance of winning in November.

"If they think a long, drawn-out Republican primary in a 6-to-1 Democratic town is going to help them, then I have a bridge to sell them in Brooklyn," one consultant quipped.