What Levy vs. Lazio Has to Do With Beating a Cuomo

05/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

George Pataki doesn't buy Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy's Republican conversion. Levy might be a fiscal hawk and an immigration hardliner, but he was a Democrat up until the day he declared his run for governor, and Pataki said it was "too politically expedient." The last Republican governor is sticking with former Rep. Rick Lazio to be the next. Whoever gets the nod, he'll have a hard time against the presumptive Democratic candidate, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Pataki aside, Levy is picking up some institutional support from state and national Republicans, though bet on Lazio to be the GOP nominee, for no other reason than that we've seen this movie before -- in 1994. It was a good year for Republicans and a near miraculous one for Pataki, who ousted another Cuomo, Mario, despite intense intraparty battling when it was least expected.

Republican consultant Arthur Finkelstein had shepherded Pataki through a campaign in which he was nothing more than a state senator who voted against Cuomo's last budget -- a Republican with no name and few discernible positions. The axis of his appeal was that he was the anti-Cuomo. Democrats saw him as a cipher for three-term Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, spawning a creative attack ad to the tune of "You Can Call Me Al" (Paul Simon donated the music gratis).

It was Pataki's close ties to D'Amato that had New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani worried. He had an antagonistic relationship with the senator and had resisted endorsing Pataki lest he look like he was me-tooing the person he wanted to supplant as New York's top Republican. Late in October, Giuliani called a press conference and endorsed Gov. Cuomo for a fourth term while tearing into Pataki:

Strangely, however, after lengthy analysis and a lot of soul-searching, I've come to the conclusion that it is George Pataki who best personifies the status quo of New York politics -- a candidate taking as few positions as possible, all of them as general as possible, taking no risks and being guided and scripted by others. He has simply not made the case that he is the agent of change.

Worse was yet to come. Pataki's campaign went into a tailspin, with internal polling seeing a 20-point swing in two days. The Republican mayor laid it on thick with media appearances and upstate treks to tout his support for the Democrat and knock his party's nominee.

Except Finkelstein found a way to turn the Giuliani-Cuomo alliance into a positive for Pataki. He cited news reports of Cuomo directing $150 million in additional state aid to New York City, and dubbed the endorsement, "the deal." A quick ad-buy and some re-tooled talking points later, Pataki used "the deal" to stir suburban and upstate resentment toward the city's largess. "Mr. Cuomo is sending your hard-earned tax dollars to New York City," he cried. Pataki bested Cuomo in a 3-point squeaker.

16 years later, Finkelstein is Lazio's consultant and he's got another 'deal' to exploit. Levy's switch to the GOP was largely orchestrated by state party chairman, Ed Cox. Cox's 31 year-old son, Chris, is running in a crowded Republican primary in New York's 1st Congressional District -- a district entirely situated within Levy's Suffolk County. The local Republican chairman there originally supported another candidate, but has been awfully partial to the younger Cox since January -- about the same time the Levy speculation kicked into high gear. Lazio partisans are alleging "a political deal."

Now, the Lazio camp doesn't have any juicy multimillion-dollar aid packages to sink their teeth into, but they can tap the GOP's brewing anti-establishment resentments. Levy's strongest asset is his image of a clubhouse-busting no-nonsense political outsider. Give Finkelstein til the September primary and Levy could still come out victorious, but looking a lot like a Republican Boss Tweed. Chris Cox's congressional bid could also end up as collateral damage, which would be somewhat poetic since his maternal grandfather was one of Finkelstein's earliest clients and another master political infighter: Richard Nixon.