NEW YORK, April 1 (UPI) -- The second-oldest and second-largest but historically the most important of New York State's six recognized minority parties, the Conservative Party, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Forty years in, how is it doing?
The combination of a low threshold of votes to qualify for legal status as a party and a law that allows cross-endorsements makes New York politics unique. In 1998, besides the two major parties, no less than six minor parties made the 50,000-vote qualification level.
In 1998, these minor parties together got 21 percent of the vote for governor and 13 percent of that for senator.
With a certain symmetry, two of these parties are on the left, two in the center, and two on the right: the labor-oriented Working Families party and the Greens on the Left, the misnamed Liberal and Independence parties in the center, and the Conservative and Right-to-Life parties on the Right.
When the Conservative Party was founded in 1962, it was created to oppose the then-successful politics of liberal Republicanism in the state. In 1962, the liberal Republican Party of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller held both Senate seats (Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating), both houses of the state Legislature, and all but one elected statewide office.
After Rockefeller retired in 1973, the Conservative Party seemed to attain its goal. During the 2000 election campaign, it was a generally-accepted truism that "no statewide Republican candidate since 1974 has won election without the Conservative Party endorsement.''
This truism wasn't as important as it might have seemed. Since Rockefeller's departure, the leaders of the Conservative and Republican parties have been in close accord: There were only eight contested primaries for statewide office in the two parties in this period. All three Conservative Party primaries were won by a Republican approved by their own party leadership and every one of five Republican contests was won by the candidate endorsed by the Conservative Party.
Indeed, it was the introduction of the open primary rather than the success of the Conservative Party that changed New York politics. It was no longer possible to keep conservatives from running against liberal Republicans in primaries. On its own, the Republican electorate would not have chosen the likes of Jacob Javits and John Lindsay as candidates. Once offered the opportunity, they no longer did so.
When liberals controlled Republican nominations, the Conservative Party did quite well. When they ran separate candidates against a Republican for the top offices in the state, those candidates received huge votes. James Buckley got 17 percent of the vote in his first race for the Senate, over 1.1 million votes, and in his 1970 match-up against two "liberals," the first compassionate conservative articulated a coherent conservative message, with an environmentalist bent, at a time when American society was polarized. He was the right man at the perfect time. He received, on the Conservative line, a total of 2,179,640 votes, giving him the win with only 39 percent of the vote.
Barbara Keating, the Conservative candidate against Senator Jacob Javits and Ramsey Clark in 1974, drew 822,584, and Herb London, their candidate for governor in 1990 drew 827,614.
However, deprived of its liberal Republican foes, the Conservative Party has never done all that well as an adjunct to the Republican Party.
In the 22 races for governor, president, and senator from 1976 through 2000, the Conservatives broke the 300,000 barrier just four times -- for gubernatorial candidates Herbert I. London in 1990 and George Pataki in 1994 and 1998, and for Senator James Buckley in 1976.
Their average vote in the seven presidential elections was 224,000; in the eight senatorial elections, 243,000. And the Republican candidates won just seven of these elections -- Sen. Al D'Amato thrice, President Ronald Reagan twice, and Governor George Pataki twice.
In fact, in this same spate of elections only two other Republican candidates won statewide office at all: Controller Ned Regan and Attorney-General Dennis Vacco exhaust the list.
In fact, George W. Bush got only 144,797 votes on the Conservative line in 2000, their worst top-of-the ticket showing in four decades.
So far from the Conservative take-over of the Republicans being the secret of Republican success, it has been the secret of their failure. In the eight elections for governor between 1942 and 1970, the Republicans won seven behind Thomas E. Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller. From 1974 on, they lost five straight gubernatorial elections. Before 1974, they won four of seven presidential elections, after 1974 they won two of seven.
Forty years later after the founding of the Conservative Party, Republicans control the governor's office and the state Senate and nothing else. More important, both the governor and the state Senate are articulating political positions well to the left of those of Rockefeller at his most liberal. But they are doing so without risking the support of the Conservative Party.
The problem of the Conservative Party can be seen best in New York City mayoral races. While their endorsed candidates William F. Buckley and John Marchi both ran famous races against John Lindsay, their opposition to liberal Republican Rudy Giuliani was far weaker.
In Giuliani's two races against David Dinkins, the Conservative Party didn't do well. The Conservative-endorsed Ron Lauder, with D'Amato's encouragement, spent $13 million against him in the 1989 primary and lost soundly, thereafter not campaigning in the general election, while George Marlin campaigned hard against Giuliani in the general election of 1993. How well did these candidates do on the Conservative line? Lauder got 9,271 votes and Marlin 9,433, about .5 of 1 percent each.
Giuliani was no Jacob Javits -- if he is to be called a liberal Republican at all, it is with a very different ideology in very different circumstances than the liberal Republicanism of three decades past. And in a close and polarized election like his races against Dinkins, the "free vote" phenomenon of 1974 and 1990 did not exist.
But it didn't get better for the Conservatives. In 1997, they took a pass in the mayoral race, and in 2001 their mayoral candidate, Terrance Gray, got only 3,577 votes against self-proclaimed liberal and recently converted Democrat Michael Bloomberg.
This year, Conservatives get political appointments from George Pataki, but they don't get anything else. Pataki is hell-bent to the center, and even to the left. In a state in which Democrats outnumber Republicans by five million to three million, he is pushing health insurance, environmentalism, gun control, and the like.
"Liberal Republicanism" may be dead as a national force, but something suspiciously like it remains in executive positions in New York State and City. But this time, it doesn't seem that their move to the center-left is costing them anything on the right. The Conservative Party may be alive in New York, but conservatism is barely kicking.