ALBANY — Newly minted Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt expressed hope for the future of his party in New York Thursday during a virtual town hall with the state’s Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy.
Both men acknowledged it’s been a rough couple of years for the GOP in Albany. On Election Day two years ago, Democrats flipped eight seats in the Senate and Republicans lost their majority in the upper house. Langworthy characterized that defeat as a shellacking and described the loss of the party’s senate majority as “catastrophic.”
“We lost seats we didn’t even know were in competition,” he said.
Since that dismal performance in 2018, things have gone from bad to worse for the GOP’s prospects in the senate. Nine of the conference’s remaining 22 senators are retiring or have announced their intention not to seek reelection in 2020.
While he’d previously said he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2020, it was longtime Minority Leader John Flanagan’s announcement earlier this month that he’d be retiring June 28 that prompted the election of Ortt to the minority leadership position.
Ortt said Republican success in the senate will hinge on members’ ability to get their message to voters. That message is one of differentiation from Democrats, who now control all levers of power in Albany.
For too long, said Ortt, Republicans have been content to paddle with the tide instead of trying to change it. The party needs to throw out its old playbook, said Ortt, and be more direct and aggressive as it pours its efforts into critically important senate races in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island.
“We need to make them play defense down there,” said Ortt of Democrats seeking reelection in those two areas of the state. “Otherwise, they’re going to be throwing big money into districts upstate or districts that have historically not had money being spent.”
Ortt said the party needs to call out senators like James Skoufis, whose 39th Senate District includes parts of Orange County in the Hudson Valley. Ortt blasted Skoufis for intentionally missing a recent vote on a bill to give Gov. Andrew Cuomo a 40-percent pay raise over a three-year period.
According to reporting from The Journal News, a daily newspaper based in the Lower Hudson Valley, Skoufis’s reason for being in the bathroom during the vote has changed over time. First he said he missed the vote solely to use the bathroom, then he said he was in the bathroom to protest against the bill, which he said was sprung on state lawmakers with little notice.
Ortt didn’t appear to buy that reasoning Thursday.
“He admittedly, by his own admission, hid in the bathroom. Aside from maybe the humor in that, this is an elected state senator who’s elected to make hard decisions and in his first one, he was hiding in the potty,” Ortt said. “That’s what we’re going to tell all his voters when we’re in his district. If that’s the kind of leaders you want representing you, God bless you. I don’t think that’s the case.”
Asked about districts Republicans have a good chance of flipping in the fall, Ortt named three. One was that of Jen Metzger, the Hudson Valley Democrat who, as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, voted in favor of the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which Ortt said will “crush our family farms in the State of New York.”
“It’s going to result in family farms going away in the State of New York,” he said. “So that is a vulnerable seat.”
He also named senators Jim Gaughran and Kevin Thomas, Democrats from neighboring districts on Long Island, who Ortt said have supported “all of the worst measures of their New York City counterparts.”
“Rather than being defenders of Long Island, they have been anything but. They have been absolute ancillaries, stooges,” Ortt continued. “... Basically, their representatives are no more than bootlickers to the people that run that conference in New York City and we’re going to make sure people know that.”
Langworthy pointed to the 40th Senate District, a seat currently held by Democrat Peter Harckham, as another point of focus for Republicans, especially with former GOP Gubernatorial candidate and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino’s announcement earlier this week that he would seek the seat in the fall.
“Pete Harckham is just — you used the term bootlicker. I like that a lot,” Langworthy said. “He’s certainly someone who just follows his leadership off a cliff.”
Citing his experience and name recognition, Langworthy expressed confidence Astorino will win his race against the incumbent Democrat.
“I know he’ll be well funded, he’s going to take the fight directly to,” Harckham, Langworthy said.
Knowing what case to make to voters is one thing, said Ortt, but reaching those voters to make the case is quite another.
“The far left — they’re all engaged,” said Ortt. “Whether they’re going to protests, whether they’re disrupting some kind of conservative person on a campus, whether they’re going out and intimidating people to vote for their candidates on social media or in real life.”
Many people inclined to vote Republican, said Ortt, don’t have time to engage in that kind of activism or stay abreast of the news and trends of the day because they’re busy with “real jobs.”
“They’re business owners, they’re farmers, they’re police officers, they’re single mothers — those are our folks,” he said. “... They’re not dialed in to Twitter and constantly following every little thing that goes on, so there’s no easy answer.”
Langworthy agreed and underscored the importance of getting people to recognize the difference between the two parties.
“Many people of our ideology are very busy with their own lives,” he said. “... They’re not out on the street waving sings and protesting.”
Ortt said a strong social media presence is a good place for Republican candidates to start if they want to reach voters. A strong presence online can allow candidates to cut out traditional media middlemen — which Ortt said are frequently biased against conservatives — and get their message directly to the citizenry.
“We need clear contrast,” added Langworthy. “We need to use our megaphone to be heard as loud and clearly as we can. We’re not going to match them (Democrats) with money. We don’t have the loads of people from the union hall … we’re reliant, just like our forefathers who founded this country, on people patriotically getting involved.”
Important too, said Ortt, is broadening the appeal of the Republican party and pushing back against the notion that the GOP is solely the party of white men. The minority leader recalled how, when he first joined senate in 2015, the Republican conference boasted more female members than the Democratic one. Somehow, continued Ortt, Democrats have gotten away with championing themselves as the conference for women, “even though we had more female legislators for many years than they did.”
“I want to find a Latino conservative, a black conservative... because I know they’re out there and we’re going to run them. We’re going to find them and we’re going to run them,” Ortt said. “The Democrats like to play this role that they sort of have this monopoly on all these different groups and we’re just the party of the white guy.”
The virtual town hall event ran a little more than an hour. It’s since been uploaded to the NY GOP’s YouTube channel.
Targeting what they perceive to be vulnerable, Democrat-held seats, focusing on recruiting and running minority and women candidates and getting their message to likely Republican voters in a more direct way will, hopefully, yield a Senate majority come the 2020 General Election, said Langworthy.
If a majority doesn’t come through, Langworthy’s hopeful the GOP’s efforts will at least yield “an awful lot stronger group of people to keep this party in business through redistricting and beyond.”