If the New York Republicans’ search for a gubernatorial candidate is a chess game, then Rob Astorino just notched two bold moves.
The Westchester County executive has formed an “Astorino for Governor” committee, establishing an official vehicle to launch his campaign and raise the millions of dollars he will need to challenge Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, even though he still has stopped short of officially declaring his candidacy.
In addition, Astorino has recruited Michael Lawler – the former top aide to State Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox – to help run his campaign.
Now it’s Donald J. Trump’s move.
The billionaire real estate developer told The Buffalo News last week that he would end his gubernatorial bid should Astorino announce, but his supporters say Trump continues to build support among county chairmen across the state and refuses to flinch following Astorino’s latest maneuvers.
“It’s going to take a lot more than Rob Astorino walking across the street to open a bank account to stop Donald Trump from trouncing him,” said Michael R. Caputo, the East Aurora political consultant working on the Trump effort. “Donald Trump is starting to get an air of inevitability, and Rob Astorino is having trouble getting any air at all.”
Caputo said Tuesday that Trump continues to contact leaders of Republican organizations around the state and that “well over half” are committed to him.
Trump said he remains uninterested in wooing delegates at the Republican State Convention, even saying he would drop out should Astorino formally declare.
But Caputo said he sees a Trump nomination as a “fait accompli” long before party leaders meet in May.
Astorino faces a tall order in matching the campaign bank account of Cuomo, who is holding on to more than $33 million. Astorino’s new committee will get a rush of initial money from his existing county executive account, which last month reported having $1 million on hand; he said he does not know yet how much he can transfer to his Astorino for Governor account; nor has he decided when to hold his first fundraiser.
It’s all tentative, though, as Astorino still can decide not to run and then simply disband the account he set up Monday.
But at the State Capitol on Tuesday, Astorino was sounding every bit the candidate. He met behind closed doors with Senate Republicans, an important political group that can influence everything from how much energy local party organizations expend on an Astorino campaign this fall to helping him raise donations.
One Senate Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity because the closed-door conferences are supposed to remain secret, said Astorino impressed the gathering. Asked whether Astorino sought to sound like the GOP candidate, the lawmaker said: “Oh, God, yes.”’
But when Astorino was asked whether he expects his new moves, including creation of a campaign account, to end the Trump ruminating, he said, “You’ll have to ask Donald Trump. My decision to run will be made whether Mr. Trump wants to run or not.”
Asked in an interview for his thoughts on Trump wanting the Republicans to clear the way for him to run unopposed if they want him as a candidate, Astorino said, “Don’t we all?”
“But you have to work for these things,” he said of his calls to all 62 county GOP and Conservative Party leaders, as well as traveling across the state.
All of this follows Trump’s Friday appearance at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens in Lancaster, where he met with about 20 top Republicans – including Cox – in a private dinner following a fundraiser that drew more than 600 supporters. Several sources present at the dinner said Trump directly accused Cox of failing to win any statewide contests, with the chairman pointing to his efforts in a host of recent local races.
As Trump continues to publicly and privately attack Cox’s record and his support for Astorino, tensions are mounting between the two camps. “If Donald Trump does not get into this race, it’s becoming abundantly clear Ed Cox will not get us a candidate to win,” Caputo said.
Cox acknowledged the exchange Tuesday. “It was really the start of a conversation with respect to what the party can do to support a statewide candidate as we go forward,” he said. “At the end of the conversation, Donald invited a continuation of the conversation.” He also reiterated his recent stock answer to the Astorino-Trump standoff as indicative of the party showcasing “two good candidates.”
But more complications are unfolding. Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino has strongly hinted he will seek the Conservative nod should anyone but Trump emerge as the GOP nominee. That could split the opposition and almost guarantee Cuomo’s re-election, say most observers, since no Republican has won statewide office without Conservative support since 1974.
Some Conservatives, including Erie County Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, continue to encourage Paladino as a way of preserving the party’s coveted third position on the state ballot, which is determined by vote in the last gubernatorial election. He expects a strong effort this year by the Working Families Party to supplant the Conservatives, and credits his own 2010 maneuvers to name Paladino as the Conservative and Republican candidate with saving Row C.
“I would be thrilled if Trump runs, but if not, I’d like to see Carl,” Lorigo said Tuesday. “That way we at least could stay on Row C, and possibly move up to Row B.”
He said he continues to harbor major questions about Astorino. “Can Astorino raise enough money and have enough of a team to even stay on Row B?” he said. “Nobody thinks he can beat Cuomo, except Ed Cox.”