Rob Astorino, the Republican Westchester County Executive considering a run against the governor, has taken the next key step in his gubernatorial campaign exploration with the creation of a campaign account to begin taking donations.
“We’ll gladly accept that," Astorino said of potential campaign donations.
The Republican this week filed an “Astorino for Governor" committee with the state Board of elections, though he said he will not make a final decision about a run until the end of the month.
The new committee will get a rush of initial money from Astorino’s existing county executive account, which last month reported having $1 million on hand.
That contrasts though, with the $33 million incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo has in his account.
Astorino said he did 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 can still decide not to run and then disband the account he set up on Monday.
But at the Capitol 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 if Astorino sought to sound like the GOP candidate, the lawmaker said: “Oh, God, yes."
Besides creating a campaign account, Astorino this week recruited Michael Lawler – the former top aide to Astorino ally and state Republican Chairman Edward F. Cox – to help run his campaign.
Now, it’s Donald J. Trump’s turn.
Though the billionaire real estate developer told The Buffalo News last week he would end his gubernatorial bid should Astorino announce, his supporters say Trump continues to build support among county chairmen around the state and refuses to flinch following the latest Astorino 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, though, has said he remains uninterested in wooing delegates at the Republican State Convention – and even said he would drop out should Astorino formally declare.
But Caputo said he sees a Trump nomination as a “fait accompli” long before the party leaders meet in May.
“It’s collapsing around him, with upstate completely gone,” he said of Astorino. “It’s not soup yet, but the veggies are getting soft.”
The line of Republican insiders who believe Trump has no intention of running for governor appears longer than the one Caputo is standing on.
Asked if he expects his new moves to end the Trump ruminating, Astorino responded: “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 what his thoughts were about 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 around the state with trips this weekend to the Bronx and Orange County events.
All of this follows Trump’s Friday appearance at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens in Lancaster. He met with about 20 top Republicans – including Cox – in a private dinner following a fund raiser that drew more than 600 supporters. Several sources present at the dinner said Trump directly accused Cox of failing to win any statewide contests under his leadership.
The chairman responded by pointing to his efforts in several recent local races.
Cox acknowledged the exchange on 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.”
Cox also reiterated his recent stock answer to the Astorino-Trump standoff as indicative of the party showcasing “two good candidates.”
But more complications are also unfolding.
Carl P. Paladino has strongly hinted he will seek the Conservative nod should anyone but Trump emerge as the Republican 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.
“Ultimately, the Conservative Party will have to pick the candidate they best feel will be successful,’’ Astorino said, adding, “I’m a principled conservative and they’ll have no reason not to back me if I decide to run.’’
Some Conservatives like Erie County Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo continue to encourage Paladino as a way of preserving the party’s 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.”
Still, Lorigo acknowledged that since Paladino is not a registered Conservative, his fate centers around whatever decision state Chairman Michael R. Long of Brooklyn renders on the Buffalonian’s candidacy. He controls enough votes on the state committee, he said, to determine whether Paladino receives authorization to run on the minor party line.
But Long on Tuesday called Astorino’s latest moves “decisive,” and said the county executive is “getting closer and closer to a bona fide candidacy.”
“I spoke to Donald Trump, who made it clear he would run only if the decks were totally cleared,” he said. “I tried to tell him that’s not how this operates.”
Long also said that based on Trump’s previous statements, he expects the billionaire and television star will not run once Astorino officially joins the race. That would leave him to deal with Paladino, whom he described as a “good friend” and credited with “doing us a big favor” with a strong 2010 showing that preserved Row C for the party.
“I continue to talk to Carl,” he said. “My hope is that Carl and I are together on whatever he decides as we go down the road.”