Can a Trump-loving upstater bring back the New York GOP?
Can a Trump-loving upstater bring back the New York GOP?
The rumors started to float around the state Capitol late last year in the wake of the devastating loss of the state Senate, the final lever of power held by Republicans in New York state government. Then the Instagram and Facebook feeds of Nicholas Langworthy, the young Erie County Republican Party chairman, started to feature images of him meeting with county chairs and other political players across the state, from Long Island to Saratoga to his hometown region in Western New York. Ed Cox, the state Republican Party chairman for the past decade, showed no signs that he planned on relinquishing his position. Many Albany insiders thought his fundraising prowess and service to the party would be enough to hold off Langworthy, the ambitious 38-year-old about half Cox’s age.
But by the time Langworthy formally announced that he would seek Cox’s spot in April, he was well on his way to securing the votes needed to convince the chairman to step aside rather than fighting it out at the state party convention this summer. Soon after announcing, Langworthy had persuaded enough county chairs to give him the support he needed to unseat Cox and become the youngest state Republican Party chairman in its history. In May, the two stood side by side, grinning and shaking hands to detail the transition, which included a spot for Cox as part of President Donald Trump’s fundraising team. The New York Times reported that Trump wanted the move to happen and may have offered the job as a “landing pad.”
Outwardly, the transition has been over the top in its politeness. “Taking this to a July floor fight was in no one’s best interest, and I think there’s a great opportunity ahead for Chairman Cox to serve the president’s reelection committee,” Langworthy said of Cox during a recent interview in his Theatre District office in downtown Buffalo. “He is a good fundraiser. He will do a great job for the president in New York in the Northeast raising money for him.”
And the outgoing chairman has been eager to return the praise, even if he was not initially ready to leave. “Going forward, it’s a totally different paradigm and I think Nick’s going to be very, very good at working it,” Cox said in a phone interview.
Western New York Republicans have been floating the idea of Langworthy as a replacement for Cox since at least the Republican National Convention in 2016. It was there that Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, who along with Langworthy was one of the earliest and most vociferous supporters of Trump, correctly predicted that Langworthy would be the next man to head the state party. “The future of the Republican Party, especially in New York state, is going to be to attract the working man and start dealing with the image and rebuilding the base of the party,” Paladino said in a recent phone interview. “I think Nick is the perfect guy to do that.” One might even call Langworthy’s ascension the ultimate triumph of Paladino’s and Trump’s brand of populist, far-right conservatism over the once-moderate New York GOP.
“I saw a guy who thought like I did.” – Carl Paladino, on Nick Langworthy
Paladino – who, like Trump, is bombastic, controversial and sometimes prone to racist or misogynist comments – was the Republican nominee for governor in 2010, part of the tea party wave that swept that year’s Republican primaries. He lost in a landslide to Andrew Cuomo.
In 2014, Cox backed then-Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino for governor, on electability grounds, while Langworthy joined the chorus of upstate conservatives trying to woo Trump to run for governor. Trump ultimately declined and Astorino lost by a decisive margin, though significantly smaller than Paladino’s 30-point loss to Cuomo. This episode might have eventually sealed Cox’s fate, as Trump is known to hold grudges.
In Paladino’s eyes, the patrician Cox – the outgoing chairman is former President Richard Nixon’s son-in-law – is too much of a “silk stocking guy” to lead the Republicans out of obscurity. In Langworthy, he sees someone who can rally average voters. “I saw a guy who thought like I did,” Paladino said of his early impressions of Langworthy, “and thought that the Republican Party was kind of a mess that needs to be reset to expand its base.”
While Langworthy may better represent today’s Trumpist New York Republicans than Cox, how will he help them win more elections in an overwhelmingly Democratic state? In interviews, Langworthy is charismatic but opaque about how more enthusiastic electioneering will win over voters who mostly just don’t agree with the Republican Party platform. The future of the state party that produced national figures like Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller and Rudy Giuliani hinges on the question.
The changing ofthe guard in the New York GOP is the culmination of Trump’s takeover of the party, in New York and across the country. The Empire State’s Republican leadership, like Cox, has largely been more of the rhetorically restrained and strategically cautious Rockefeller Republican variety, even if they relied on conservative constituencies in the hinterlands to deliver votes. Langworthy, the son of a bar owner and a factory worker who split up when he was 3, is more comfortable at a chicken dinner in Ulster County, where red MAGA hats abound, than at a high-dollar fundraiser on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
It was his experiences growing up in Allegany and Cattaraugus counties – part of a poor, rural region along the Pennsylvania border ravaged by the loss of once-abundant factory jobs – that drove him to GOP politics, he said. Looking across the border into Pennsylvania, where his neighbors would travel to get cheaper gas and do their back-to-school shopping to save on sales taxes, Langworthy saw a state, while not as conservative as many, that offered a better way of life for regular people. “Those small-town values were important to me, to see how people struggle,” he said.
And when he returned home during college, he saw the continuing pain of deindustrialization. His friends and neighbors were all going elsewhere to find work, part of what he calls the “hollowing out” of upstate.
No one in Langworthy’s family was involved in government or much of a political junkie. There was a social studies teacher who encouraged his natural curiosity in public affairs. That’s about as close as he can get to pinpointing the origins of his obsession with electoral politics.
Once he had the bug, he couldn’t stay away. In high school, he was class president and then student council president. And those early days, where he learned the value of a firm handshake and looking someone in the eye as they speak to you, were helpful to his most recent victory.
At Niagara University, in Lewiston, just north of Niagara Falls, Langworthy would begin the school’s chapter of the College Republicans, working his way up to be state chairman of that organization by his junior year. That earned him an internship with then-Gov. George Pataki. There he would sit at the desk just outside the governor’s inner office. The state legislative leaders at the time – Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno – would breeze by him on the way to end-of-session negotiations.
Then he ran Henry Wojtaszek’s failed 2002 congressional campaign for the district along Lake Ontario. From there, he was hired by then-Rep. Thomas Reynolds as a 21-year-old college senior, working as a field representative in the district while he finished school. After graduation, he came on full time. Eight years later, he was the youngest county chairman in the history of Western New York. He has always climbed the ladder at a dizzying pace.
Langworthy met his wife, Erin, when they were both staffers for Reynolds. Reynolds said that Nick’s obsessive, always-on nature has been there since they first met. “He’s politics 24/7,” the former congressman said. “The only thing that comes first is his wife and his daughter.”
“Do not underestimate Nick Langworthy,” Reynolds added. “He’s had an impact every step of the process, since he graduated from college, in the business of politics.”
New York Republicans, at least publicly, have always presented a united front. A strategy of appealing to moderates in the suburbs helped the party retain control of the state Senate almost continuously for 50 years. In the early 1990s, Republicans were able to put moderate candidates in the governor’s mansion, New York City Hall and the state attorney general’s office.
Now, it seems, Langworthy will have a more difficult road to success: New York’s electorate is diversifying – the share of white people in the state has fallen from 74% in 1990 to 69% in 2018, according to census data – and Langworthy is affiliated with the wing of the GOP most alienating to racial minorities and recent immigrants.
Having been an early and avid supporter of Trump’s presidential bid, Langworthy cannot shy away from his association with the polarizing president. And it does not appear that Langworthy has any intention of trying. His daughter Madeline spent part of Easter morning roaming the White House lawn searching for eggs, an occasion that was recorded on Langworthy’s social media accounts.
“The Republican Party wants to include a lot of people of color.” – Nick Langworthy
The state’s new GOP boss pointed to the hot economy and low unemployment rate as proof that the Trump presidency needn’t necessarily be a drag on New York Republicans among young voters and minorities. “I’m not running away from anything,” Langworthy said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity to build up our party, get more people involved (and) add new energy by creating synergy with the accomplishments and the track record of what he’s doing.”
In fact, Langworthy said that under his tenure seeking out new members in nontraditional Republican demographics will be a priority. “Minority participation, I’m not just going to pay lip service,” he said. “We are going to take the party to places, and run candidates (in places), that we haven’t had party apparatus.”
“We’re going to sit and listen to them and find common ground and show them that the Republican Party wants to include a lot of people of color,” he added.
Still, the numbers are stark. Of the 65 Republican members of the state Legislature, only nine are women. Just one, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who is half-Cuban, identifies as a person of color.
Langworthy said the party also needs to do more to engage women, pointing to Rep. Elise Stefanik’s efforts to get more female Republicans to run for office. He plans on partnering with her to bring her strategy to local races across the state. “This party needs to look like this state looks,” Langworthy said. “I’ve spent too much time in this campaign for chairman going to rooms that were more of the stereotypical Republican Party, which is people that were all white. We have to increase youth, increase female participation and have an emphasis on minority participation.”
When asked about the state of the Republican Party in New York, Timothy Kneeland, history and political science department chairman at Nazareth College near Rochester, said that as the parties move further from the center on both sides, it becomes harder for a party that has fallen so far to thread the needle. “When people start looking at Bill Clinton as too conservative for the Democratic Party, that really tells you the winds of change are blowing in a completely different direction than they were even 25 years ago,” he said.
“I hope that this is what rock bottom looks like.” – Nick Langworthy
Conventional wisdom says the only way that Langworthy’s GOP will have a shot at statewide office – he won’t get to try for three more years – is through a more moderate candidate. He has backed such candidates in constituencies that require it. He successfully ran state Sen. Chris Jacobs in a 2017 open seat contest for the heavily blue 60th Senate District, which encompasses Buffalo and its surrounding suburbs. Jacobs is considered about as middle of the road as any Republican in the Legislature.
While Langworthy did not have much to do with the most recent gubernatorial campaign, he was a vocal backer of Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro in his failed bid to unseat Cuomo. In that case, Molinaro – a friendly, telegenic mainstream Republican from just north of New York City’s far suburbs – lost by more than 20 points. Republicans point to his fundraising disadvantage and subsequent inability to get his message out. But, when you can’t get closer than 20 points in a race with a good candidate running against a governor with faltering poll numbers and corruption scandalsswirling aroundhis administration, it suggests a fundamental problem that will not be easy to overcome.
Langworthy does not deny this. He and nearly every person who spoke with City & State for this story recognized that the party is at a nadir not reached in decades. “I hope that this is what rock bottom looks like,” Langworthy said. “I think we’re at a point where the Republicans know we’re all in this together and we’ve got nowhere to go but up.”
Putting a positive spin on his party’s predicament, Langworthy views its position as an “opportunity.” It’s a word he deploys often. Had Molinaro won, Langworthy would no longer have pursued the state chairmanship, he said, as the chair of the governor’s party takes orders from the governor’s mansion.
But what does Langworthy want to do with his control? It seems his only strategic pivot from the Cox era is logistical: an emphasis on trying to improve the party’s prospects from the bottom up rather than the top down. “We’re talking about a full rebuild of the party, which is working with every single county leader, municipal leader, to find out what works best in your backyard,” Langworthy said. “What can the state Republican Party do to help you in your mission?”
Langworthy is an expert at working a room, sticking around long enough to hear from everyone who wants his ear – but also knowing how to move on so other people don’t leave, frustrated they never got to talk to him. At Erie County GOP events, such as fundraisers and election night parties, there is no doubt who is in charge. He’s the emcee, the cheerleader, the center of attention. When he enters a room, heads turn, and the chatter picks up.
His plan is to export that type of attentiveness, that type of energy, across the state. “Right now, we are a loose configuration of 62 counties,” he said. What he envisions is a well-connected, flexible grassroots machine. When the state Senate leadership shows up to an event, whether it’s in Brooklyn or Oneonta, he wants a team of dedicated staffers on the ground to roll out the red carpet and escort them around town, just as he has worked to do in Erie County since taking the helm nine years ago. “Our infrastructure has crumbled,” he said. “It’s time to go rebuild the infrastructure.”
While Langworthy is an unabashed supporter of the president and an ally of Paladino, his style is more subtle. He sometimes attacks Democrats, but largely sticks to the policy points and usually does not make it personal. He doesn’t share Trump’s penchant for self-aggrandizement, preferring the behind-the-scenes work of crunching the numbers and organizing. Despite his obvious potential, Langworthy has never run for public office. “It’s just not something I’ve looked towards doing in a long time,” he said.
Democrats certainly don’t see Langworthy as a lightweight. State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs said the energy and enthusiasm that he brings will pose new challenges for Democrats, noting the cyclical nature of political trends. “I never look to underestimate anyone,” Jacobs said.
Jeremy Zellner, Langworthy’s Democratic counterpart in Erie County, praised Langworthy for his love of his family and his work ethic. But both Zellner and Jacobs see his ties to Trump, especially on the statewide level, to be playing right into their hands.
“It’s like taking the wheel of the Titanic after you’ve hit the iceberg.” – Jeremy Zellner, Erie County Democratic chairman
“The only thing I could hope for is that he bring President Trump to New York as many times as he possibly could, because there’s nothing better for the Democratic base than to hear the name Trump, except for seeing him,” Jacobs said.
Zellner said he has no doubt that Langworthy will leave no opportunities on the table and that he will do everything in his power to bolster the Republican brand in every corner of the state. But that brand is already out there, and it isn’t selling in enough places or to enough people to help the Republicans out of the hole they are in. “It’s almost like taking the wheel of the Titanic,” Zellner said, “after you’ve hit the iceberg.”
Langworthy and other Republicans have compared his style and plan for building up the grassroots organization to that of Bill Powers, the state party chairman from 1991 to 2001. In his first years, Powers was able to create momentum by helping county chairs win local and countywide elections, naturally building up enthusiasm and participation along the way, the basic blueprint that Langworthy is looking to replicate.
Just a few years after he took over the party, Powers helped George Pataki – then a little-known state senator – defeat then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, who was seeking a fourth term. That same year, 1994, Republican Dennis Vacco was elected state attorney general.
But there are some major differences between that era and today. Voter registration numbers have continued to erode for Republicans, as upstate sees its population dwindle and New York City grows. The Democrats’ advantage has grown by more than 1.8 million voters since Pataki’s first term, and they now outnumber Republicans by a ratio of more than 2-to-1 statewide. While Pataki and Vacco benefited from backlash against Bill Clinton’s 1992 election and the Republican wave in 1994, Langworthy will have to deal with anti-Trump sentiment that drove record numbers of people to the polls in 2018. Republican candidates for governor, state attorney general and state comptroller lost by an average of 27 points last year.
And surely Democrats will continue to work to link Langworthy and his slate to the Trump administration. “Even if you try to run away from him, the Democrats are going to smear you with him anyway, so you might as well just let that wash over you,” Kneeland said. “At the same time, you can’t afford to lose those voters. They are significantly important in any kind of GOP comeback.”
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed the president’s statewide approval rating at 28%, and 64% of voters and 81% of nonwhite voters would definitely not vote for him if he is the Republican candidate in 2020.
Many have praised Langworthy for his ability to carry countywide races in Erie County, where the Democratic voter registration advantage is a ratio of 2-to-1, roughly mirroring the statewide numbers. Republicans currently hold the offices of sheriff and comptroller. The county clerk, Michael Kearns, is technically a Democrat, but ran on the Republican line with the backing of Langworthy against a Democratic-supported candidate. “If he can replicate that statewide, it’s going to be a success no matter what,” Kneeland said.
Zellner was more dismissive of the countywide successes, pointing to instances like Kearns, where, he said, Langworthy takes advantage of the fractured nature of Democrats in Western New York and the fusion voting system, where minor party endorsements can be the difference in close elections. “I think Nick sees it as an opportunity to organize the committee,” Zellner said. “I just don’t think he’s going to be very successful at it in this state.”
Some fear that Cox’s well-heeled connections will be missed. John McArdle, a longtime Albany Republican strategist and insider, believes that Langworthy will be an effective leader, especially on the organizing side, but that he might struggle to raise the kind of money that Cox brought in with regularity.
Langworthy isn’t concerned. He believes that if he is able to show donors he can win, the money will follow. “The real, huge money interests in New York City haven’t taken our party seriously in two generations, since George Pataki left office,” he said. “That money is on the sidelines.”
Now that Langworthy has reached the pinnacle of state Republican politics, he’ll have to play the part of miracle worker to bring his party out of the deep hole it’s in. He said that with Trump at the top of the ticket, there is a good chance that Republicans will be able to take back the 10 seats they need to regain a majority in the state Senate, if not more. (If state Sen. Simcha Felder flipped back to the Republicans again, they could do it with nine.) “I believe that his core of support maybe didn’t show up in 2018 like they did in 2016,” Langworthy said of Trump.
With so many seats to win – not to mention dealing with Chris Jacobs likely leaving his seat in the 60th District to run for Rep. Chris Collins’ seat, and the possibility of retirements – Langworthy may struggle just to tread water in his first election cycle.
If Republicans fail to take back the state Senate, the consequences could be dire. With no influence over redistricting, Democrats could further solidify their stranglehold on state government, setting the GOP back for at least a decade.
But, without naming names, Langworthy said with his trademark unflappable confidence that he will do whatever he has to do to get the right candidates for the right districts next year. “With candidate recruitment, everything’s on the table,” he said. “You’ve got to look to the private sector, the public sector. You’ve got to find the best person to carry a message and all politics is local. You have to go district by district.”
In his talks with Trump, Langworthy said he would do what he has always done, despite long odds as a Republican in an increasingly blue state. “I can’t guarantee we’re going to win,” he recalled telling Trump. “But we’re going to make this thing fight like hell.”