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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

The tattered New York Republican Party can rebuild

State Republicans must honestly seize third-rail issues they have avoided for so long.

Voters mark their ballots in last week's election

Voters mark their ballots in last week's election in Riverhead. Photo Credit: James Carbone

It’s quite a thing to awake in the morning and view the damage. The storm swept through the night before. The wreckage was fully reported. But, still, there’s something about seeing it in the light of day when one can truly look and blink and ponder.

Reps. Dan Donovan of Staten Island, John Faso of the Hudson Valley and Claudia Tenney of central New York; State Sens. Elaine Phillips of Flower Hill, Carl Marcellino of Syosset, Kemp Hannon of Garden City, Martin Golden of Brooklyn and Terrence Murphy of Jefferson Valley; and three open State Senate seats held by Republicans for a generation. All of them gone, barring reversal. Swept out to sea by a Democratic wave that chose New York as its ground zero. Connecticut nearly elected a Republican governor. New Jersey held a competitive U.S. Senate race. But here, utter annihilation for New York’s GOP.

The news gets worse: The storm will strengthen and return in 2020 when President Donald Trump is on the ballot. This was the practice round for the anti-Trump vengeance to come. A more conservative upstate, hollowed of population by job loss and cost of living, can do nothing to stop it. It’s perennially defenseless against the will of a downstate population that outnumbers it 3 to 2.

The likely result in 2020, barring unseen developments, will be continued Democratic control of the State Legislature for the 2022 redistricting, spelling the end of the Republican Party as we have known it here. State legislative lines will be redrawn, making near-future Republican majorities in either house unfathomable. Congressional districts will be reshaped, too.

In every calamity there is opportunity, though, if one looks stubbornly enough. And through the roof tiles, downed trees and overturned boats, one can’t help but glimpse a pathway cleared for the New York GOP by Tuesday’s storm. The arrow is there, beneath the pile, shimmering.

With the loss of the State Senate majority, Republicans are free to be Republicans. Arrangements with public employee unions have been mercifully severed; there are no longer Republican senators to protect in the five boroughs, save State Sen. Andrew Lanza of Staten Island, who can survive on his own, and Democrats in Albany are sure to overstep their unbridled power.

This freedom means Republicans can talk about the elephants in the room for a change: Punishing public-service pension costs made possible by an ill-conceived Triborough Amendment, which makes it impossible to renegotiate contracts; a rent stabilization system that benefits people who don’t need it and which restricts housing development; right-to-work legislation that has helped other states thrive; overly generous union work rules that drive up costs; an end to defined-benefit pensions for elected officials; statewide term limits; medical malpractice and other tort reforms that could drive down health care costs; a state government audit that hasn’t been done in nearly a century that could save taxpayers billions; sinful cash giveaways to corporations that donate . . . the list goes on.

These are things Republicans should have talked about but couldn’t because of political arrangements that preserved their State Senate majority. When Republicans can’t speak the truth to voters because they are compromised, they shouldn’t be surprised when Democratic issues dominate the conversation.

But all deals are off the table now, and that’s an excellent thing. By seizing third-rail issues boldly and honestly, the New York GOP can slowly rebuild, and in a healthy way. It can go on the offense for a change, drive the public debate and become the party of reform it was always supposed to be. There is solid footing to be had. All it takes is a first step.

Therein shines the light in a dark hour for a proud old New York party. It need only open its eyes to see it.

William F. B. O’Reilly, a consultant to Republicans, worked on Marc Molinaro’s gubernatorial campaign.

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