In the annual rush to pass legislation during the final days of their legislature’s spring session, New Yorkers got a good look at what one-party rule looks like. The list of bills jammed through the Assembly and Senate was a left-wing wish list that included a climate change plan to eliminate the state’s carbon emissions by 2050, all in an effort to please environmental extremists.
But the most controversial was the passage of a bill allowing driver’s licenses to be granted to illegal immigrants, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo quickly signed into law. By passing a bill that will give a valid photo ID to any illegal immigrant who wants one, the state’s Democrats made it clear who rules the roost in Albany.
Until this year, the state house had been divided between a Democrat-controlled Assembly and a Republican majority in the Senate. The party’s New York City-based left wing had in the past been restrained by both a divided government as well as leaders who knew just how far they could push the envelope without creating unwelcome consequences.
Some other liberal legislation slipped through without much noise, but this particular demand of Democrats’ socialist wing and the anti-Trump “resistance” created so much pushback from the suburbs that The New York Times even noted it in a feature about the danger it posed to the party. But the Democrats’ leftist base was not to be denied and, with the acquiescence of a governor who has alternated between periods of moderate pragmatism and fidelity to liberal ideology in his more than eight years in power, the legislature gave the pro-illegal immigration lobby what they wanted.
Can Republicans Combat This Egregious Move?
The question now is whether the state’s Republican Party is so completely moribund that it can’t take advantage of even this opportunity that their foes have handed to them on a silver platter.
The 2018 blue wave that swept through the state flipped enough seats in suburban districts that had formerly been held by the GOP to finally achieve the complete mastery over state government that Democrats have sought since 2010. Democrats had a brief period of control of both houses of the legislature (and the governor’s mansion) in 2009 and 2010, but that was the only time in the last few decades when either party held that political trifecta.
Like the national party, though, New York Democrats have shifted to the left since then.
The left tried to get driver’s licenses for illegals in 2007 when the since-disgraced Gov. Elliot Spitzer asked the legislature to pass the measure. Along with outrage from Republicans, many Democrats opposed such a move. But while there are still some Democrats who worry about imitating California-style radicalism, support for the “rights” of people who have no legal right to be in the United States has become something of a requirement for liberals to maintain their anti-Trump bona fides.
As The New York Times noted, new state Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs believed that compelling Democrats who had just won seats from Republicans by promising that they would not bow to the New York City-based left-wing leadership of their party was a formula for disaster. Yet that is exactly what happened on the driver’s license bill, as some supposedly centrist Democrats in swing districts decided that offending the party’s liberal base—and running the risk of an AOC-style primary challenge next year—was more worrisome than the possibility that this would come back to bite them in November 2020.
Liberals’ ability to crack the partisan whip and pass the bill wasn’t just a triumph of true believer ideology. It’s also based in New York Democrats’ not unreasonable conviction that the state’s Republican Party is as likely to pose a threat to them as the Whigs or the Federalists.
Republicans Are No Longer a Credible Threat In New York
That makes sense to contemporary political observers who came of age in the 21st century when New York has been as deep blue as almost any state in the union. Republicans have not won a statewide election since 2002, when George Pataki won the last of his three terms as governor and only managed to hold onto majorities in a state senate that maximizes the GOP’s edge in upstate and suburban district by the most slender of margins until 2018.
New York was a two-party state throughout the 20th century, though. While the electoral success of liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller (a four-term governor from 1959 to 19730 and Jacob Javits (a four-term U.S. senator from 1957 to 1981) may seem like ancient history, the ability of more conservative GOP stalwarts like Al D’Amato (a three-term U.S. senator from 1981 to 1999) and Pataki to leverage dominance in rural and suburban areas of the state into victories is within living memory.
New York’s shift to the left since 2002 is, like in other states, partly the result of changing demographics of the suburbs and partly due to the GOP’s inability to hold onto female voters who are turned off by the party’s conservative stands on social issues (as well as by Trump).
But there’s also no denying that the New York GOP has given all the appearances of a party that has given up the ghost for the last two decades. It hasn’t fielded a statewide candidate for any major office who wasn’t a sacrificial lamb written off by serious political pros since Pataki slithered out of Albany after presiding over the suicide of a party that had lost its former stance as the defender of fiscal sanity.
Since then, it has been left to GOP outliers in the suburbs and upstate to hold onto those districts that Democrats couldn’t manage to gerrymander into being competitive. But though the state GOP has appeared to be incorrigibly hapless, the driver’s license bill has handed them a club to beat almost any Democrat outside of the five boroughs of the Big Apple and to regain the House seat they lost last year in Republican Staten Island.
The Bill Could Be Republicans’ Secret Weapon
A Siena College poll taken earlier in June about the issue demonstrated why Jacobs was so worried about his members being pressured by the left into doing something their constituents opposed. Statewide voters opposed the bill by a 53 to 41 percent majority. Even in New York City, voters were nearly evenly split on it, with supporters gaining only a 46-45 percent advantage.
In 2020, the New York GOP knows it has zero chance of winning the state’s Electoral College votes for native son Trump. But that means it can still concentrate its slim resources on rolling back Democratic gains in the suburbs and upstate in congressional and legislative districts where voters have little sympathy for the radicals currently running Albany or the bogus charges of racism flung at opponents of measures like the driver’s license bill.
At a minimum, with even a halfway competent effort, that ought to allow Republicans to recapture the state Senate and grab back House seats it lost in 2018. That should also allow it to begin to prepare to win back the governorship in 2022.
Given that Republican candidates have only once gotten as much as 40 percent in a gubernatorial race since 2002, that seems like a stretch. But if, as is likely, Cuomo has the hubris to seek a fourth term in 2022, if only to exceed his late father Mario (the elder Cuomo lost his bid for a fourth consecutive term to Pataki in 1994), with hardcore liberals still gunning for him and the rest of the state growing bored with his lackluster leadership, he should be vulnerable if the GOP can dig up a credible opponent.
That will only happen if New York Republicans stop acting like they are already dead and begin enthusiastically promoting conservative issues that are winners. The driver’s license issue provides them exactly that opportunity.
While proponents claim it will make the roads safer and give the state a revenue stream from the license fees, both assertions are highly dubious. Moreover, providing so-called “undocumented” immigrants with a photo ID that will be more than enough to allow them to register to vote should they want to, that will also make it clear that Democrats are undermining the rule of law and blurring the vital distinction between citizens and those who are here illegally.
Democrats clearly no longer think the state’s GOP is capable of capitalizing on the opening they’ve been given and, after their recent performances, it’s hard to argue with that conclusion. But if licenses for illegals can’t revive New York Republicans, nothing will.