Chris McKenna and Chris Potter
Rockland/Westchester Journal News USA TODAY NETWORK
As recently as this spring, New York had one Republican congressman who used to huddle with Democrats in a pragmatic “problem solver” caucus and another who voted to impeach Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 riot.
But Rep. Tom Reed, the problem solver, resigned in May, and Rep. John Katko dodged doom for his impeachment heresy by forgoing reelection. Also headed for the exits is Chris Jacobs, a Republican freshman who so infuriated his party by voicing support for an assault- rifle ban that he promptly gave up running for a second term.
Running in their place in two redrawn districts in western and central New York are avidly pro-Trump Republicans: Nick Langworthy, who is chairman of the state Republican Party and served on Trump’s transition team after the 2016 election; and Rep. Claudia Tenney, a staunch Trump supporter whom the then-president rewarded in 2018 with a campaign visit to Utica on her behalf.
Changes are afoot in the party of Pataki. Once a moderate breed epitomized by George Pataki when he reigned as governor from 1995 to 2006, New York Republicans have shifted rightward – and Trumpward – in recent years, at least among a portion of those holding or seeking seats in the state’s House delegation.
The most conspicuous example is the North Country’s four-term Rep. Elise Stefanik, who embodied her party’s shift by turning from a moderate to a tenacious Trump defender during his first impeachment and is now his ally and fundraising partner. She replaced Liz Cheney as the third-ranking House Republican as a result last year and will be in the party leadership if Republicans win control of the House as forecast in November.
Another is Rep. Lee Zeldin of Long Island, who voted against accepting the 2020 presidential election results and is now the party’s standard-bearer as its candidate for governor.
Or consider the Republican primary race between two ardent Trump supporters that just took place in the 23rd Congressional District. Langworthy won the race but only by a slim margin over Carl Paladino, the verbal bomb-thrower whom Stefanik endorsed. Paladino had suggested in an interview shortly before the election that Attorney General Merrick Garland “should be executed” for authorizing the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home to retrieve White House documents, though he later reportedly said he was being “facetious.”
Two Trump candidates
Paladino’s many controversies – he fueled outrage by praising Hitler’s leadership style in an interview – may have turned off some primary voters. The Buffalo businessman built a sizable lead in suburban Erie County, but the district’s Southern Tier counties went to Langworthy by wide margins.
“We sent a loud and clear message that people want decent, stable, honest, conservative Republican leadership going forward,” Langworthy said in his victory speech. “Now it’s time we unite our party.”
Allegany County Republican Committee Chairman Dwight “Mike” Healy was among the first committee chairs in the 23rd District to back Langworthy’s candidacy. Healy said he was friendly with Paladino but felt his brand of politics was distracting and believed Langworthy had the “right combination of youth and experience” and could represent the conservative-leaning district for the long term.
“Both of them are national figures, but Carl isn’t necessarily a national figure for the right reasons,” Healy said. “He brings a lot of baggage. Whether it’s fair or not, I can’t say. Nick is already known amongst the powers in Congress from his role. Even as Erie County chairman, he had that notoriety. He helped with the Trump transition team and was a Trump supporter.”
That support goes a long way in the 23rd, where Trump remains a popular figure in the party. Reed, who represented part of the same area before district lines were redrawn this year, was an early Trump backer but did not shy from occasionally bucking party leadership, most notably in voting to certify the results of the 2020 election.
The new 23rd District, however, is redder than the one that elected Reed five times and that Trump won by15 percentage points points in 2016 and 11 points in 2020. The reshaped district would have gone for Trump in 2020 by 18 points.
Center-right vs. Trump wing
Former Rep. John Faso, a Republican who represented part of the Hudson Valley and Catskills in Congress during the first half of the Trump presidency, agrees his party has moved to the right in New York. But he argues that is a two party trend, with Democrats sliding left and both parties embracing a sort of absolutism that blocks compromise on issues like immigration.
“I think that both parties have polarized to a degree in recent years,” Faso said in an interview.
Faso, who was an assemblyman for16 years and the Republican nominee for governor in 2006, also argued that New York Republicans remain a mixture. He said those running in competitive House districts like the one he represented still tend to stick closer to the political center out of necessity.
And even with a rightward shift, center- right Republicans and Trump-wing colleagues from New York tend to have more in common with one another than with Republicans from conservative states like Texas or Louisiana, Faso said. No New Yorkers, he pointed out, belong to the Freedom Caucus, the farthest right group of House Republicans.
Faso, who described himself as center- right and a pragmatic conservative, said he would still feel comfortable in today’s House Republican conference and sees no reason a bipartisan “problem solver” like Reed could not win a Republican nomination in the current environment.
“I definitely think they could get elected,” he said, before adding a caveat. “You can’t get too far afield from your constituents if you want to stay in office.”
Scott Minkoff, a SUNY New Paltz political science professor, sees New York’s Republican shift as a sign of Trump’s pull even in a blue state with a moderate GOP history. “I think a lot of New York is more like the rest of the country than some people thought,” he said.
Minkoff agreed with Faso that the state still has moderate GOP House members and candidates – he named Marc Molinaro, the 19th District candidate as an example – and that those with centrist or bipartisan messages could still find support in a Trumpier party.
He said he’s not convinced that Jacobs, for instance, would have lost a primary for supporting an assault-weapons ban, despite the clamor his stance caused. Whatever pressure House members feel from their party, Minkoff argued, they also have the ability to pull constituents in their direction.
Minkoff rejected the idea that Democrats’ and Republicans’ shifts are comparable.
Yes, Democratic policy positions have moved leftward, he said. But he argued the Republican change has less to do with policy choices and ideas than with Trump loyalty and embracing falsehoods and anti-democratic sentiments, like belief that the 2020 election was stolen.
“I’m not sure they are symmetrical shifts,” he said.
What is clearly happening on both sides is turnover: New York is losing a slew of Republican and Democratic House members this year, along with one of its 27 seats due to reapportionment. Nine House members elected in 2020 – four Republicans and five Democrats – passed up reelection, resigned or lost a primary and won’t be in office in 2023.
That is one third of the state’s delegation leaving, even before the general election.
Chris McKenna covers government and politics for the Times Herald-Record and USA Today network. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Potter can be reached at cpotter@ gannett.com or on Twitter @Chris-Potter413.