To Clarify or Not to Clarify

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This isn’t where Steve Minarik wanted to go.

And state Republicans would like to stop from arriving there.

But maybe the state GOP should give a second thought before saying no to… Destination “Primary.”

You already know the story about John Faso gaining the designation of the state GOP faithful this week, grabbing more of the weighted vote than William Weld, the former Massachusetts governor. (Listen to Karen DeWitt’s fine wrap up here for a refresher.)

The two gained enough votes to automatically be on a primary ballot. Both said at the state convention that they will move forward. But, as the D&C’s Joe Spector reported, Republicans are now hoping to convince Weld to step aside.

Minarik has long talked about avoiding a Republican primary – a stance he’s carried over from his other job as leader of the Monroe County Republicans.

“They are very divisive,” Minarik said last year. “Primaries are costly, time consuming. It is a very difficult thing. We don’t have a lot of time. Who knows if we’re going to have enough money.”

To head off that primary, Minarik backed Weld. And Minarik’s man did not get the majority of weighted vote at the convention.

It sure raises questions about Minarik’s place as head of the state party. Comments swirl that he wasn’t given the support he was promised from Gov. George Pataki or that he shouldn’t have tried to be both a state and county Republican chairman.

But the real question Republicans should ask themselves is whether they agree with Minarik’s perspective on primaries. Plenty of arguments are being made against this one for governor.

But let’s try to build one here that would support a primary. Sometimes a fight within a party can create a new consensus on philosophy and propel it forward with a newfound unity.

Republicans can find examples. They need only go back to 1964 when Conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater battled Liberal New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller for the party’s nomination for president. This was a divided party and the sides were forming over clearly differing paths. And in the end the conservatives backing Goldwater won out.

The primary win for the conservatives that year didn’t translate into a national victory. But Goldwater eventually begat Reagan. And Reagan begat a Conservative force in the national party that has, for years, driven the GOP. Those have been years when the party largely held the White House and, eventually, grabbed control of Congress. The reason was that Republicans seemingly had clarity about what they stood for. Only now does that foundation appear to be cracking.

Look at how this potential race is shaping up. Weld is considered a centrist Republican – balancing a fiscal conservatism with a more liberal view on social issues.

Faso says he represents the true conservative – and has the Conservative Party endorsement to prove it.

So a primary might clarify things for the Republicans – at least determine the set of values they might want to sell to the general voting public. While such a primary campaign will direct the Faso and Weld campaigns away from the Democratic nominee, the party might have a chance at rallying around a message against Spitzer after September.

Where are state Republicans now? Just ask the party faithful. GOP committee members grumble that Gov. George Pataki has left them dangling. Unspoken is that Pataki’s rhetoric as a fiscal conservative wasn’t matched by his actions.

But perhaps Republican leaders who want to avoid a primary are remembering Pataki in another way.

Twelve years ago then State Sen. Pataki, a more moderate choice, sought his party’s nomination against a true-blue conservative Herb London. The stage was set for a primary with a dominant Democrat waiting in the wings – Gov. Mario Cuomo.

But in the end London was bought off with a place on the ballot as Comptroller. The choice was never given to the Republican primary voter. And so the boiling point never materialized.

And, of course, Pataki won the governor’s mansion.

Perhaps GOP leaders now want to replicate that unity of 1994 because they see a primary as an event that will leave a wound for November. That’s the short term view.

Should the longer-term outlook be short-changed?

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