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Erie County Republicans gathered Saturday in the way they normally do – in unity and amid plenty of hearty backslapping – to endorse several candidates for office this year.

They had no problem settling on Chris Jacobs for county clerk, nor Chris Collins for Congress, nor even their new best friend Kathy Weppner to oppose Democratic incumbent Brian Higgins for Congress.

No muss, no fuss. It’s the Republican way.

But all is not rainbows and happiness in Republican Land. While the local GOP found no trouble with the “easy” endorsements, it now stares at a major problem with its “problem child” – State Sen. Mark Grisanti of Buffalo.

“There’s a real mess on our hands here,” said one local Republican observer.

That’s because when the party gathers to endorse a candidate for the Grisanti seat, it will be minus the unity and backslapping. Real divisions are forming between those backing Grisanti – a Democrat-turned-Republican who has taken some controversial votes – and more-conservative Republicans.

Those conservative Repubs line up behind either Kenmore attorney Kevin Stocker – who is already campaigning door-to-door – or County Legislator Kevin Hardwick – who is eyeing the race.

Others are just fine with the incumbent, despite votes for un-Republican bills such as the legalization of same-sex marriage and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s SAFE Act.

Same-sex marriage? Grisanti survived that 2011 vote without a problem in his 2012 re-election campaign. SAFE Act? That’s a different story in a district that now embraces much more of suburbia than as a former city-centered enclave.

All of this comes into focus on a March Sunday after a dozen prominent Republicans in the district declared their support for Grisanti last week. They include town supervisors, Council members and town and zone chairmen – none registered as official heavy hitters, yet significant just the same.

They line up with bigger names like State Sen. George Maziarz and former County Executive Joel Giambra (another Democrat-turned-Republican) who have always been close to Grisanti, and have helped him through the inherent rough sailing encountered by a Republican attempting survival in an overwhelmingly Democratic district.

The Republican majority in Albany likes Grisanti, too. The incumbent could vote to ban sunshine and Dean Skelos and company would still embrace Grisanti to preserve the slim hold on the Senate they are forced to share with a group of breakaway Dems.

Erie County Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy isn’t talking about where he will head in this touchy dilemma. But that’s significant, as is his decision not to include a Grisanti endorsement on his agenda this weekend.

Still, he feels the heat from equally powerful GOP forces such as Buffalo’s Carl Paladino, who rails every chance he gets against RINOs (Republicans in name only) like Grisanti, who is at the top of his RINO list.

So now real choices face Langworthy and his Republicans. It is certain, say a number of sources, that the party will not settle on Stocker – a frequent political candidate who has yet to score a victory. Grisanti forces predict efforts will be made to persuade Stocker to seek “other opportunities.”

That leaves Hardwick, a popular legislator and political scientist at Canisius College whose more-conservative views make him a “real Republican.” But the main question now is whether Hardwick can stomach a divisive primary, especially against two opponents in a situation that would heavily favor the incumbent.

Last week’s endorsement of Grisanti by GOP officials appears as an effort to force the issue. By their very action, they declare to all of Western New York that an internal battle looms.

But it does also not appear likely that Langworthy and his crew will act at this early date. They may take the unusual step of endorsing nobody and throwing the whole “real mess” at the voters in an open primary.

Given all that is at stake for the Republicans in Albany, the real mess could get even messier.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com