The New York State Conservative Party recently celebrated its 50th Anniversary at its annual Conservative Party Political Action Committee held in Albany, New York. Was there really reason to celebrate? One way of judging the health of any political party is looking at the number of candidates running for public office that qualify for ballot status on their line. Political parties are organized on a State Assembly basis with a male and female State Committee person. Within each Assembly district are a series of election districts represented by two district committee people. Real political parties find candidates and enough active registered party members to circulate nominating petitions. You only need a handful of registered Conservative Party members within any Assembly district to qualify for ballot status as a candidate for the Assembly. The average Conservative Party enrollment per Assembly district averages in the hundreds. Finding this should be easy. This is necessary to acquire sufficient signatures for qualifying candidate ballot status. Those political parties that can’t perform this most basic task exist only on paper and are essentially dead. Up until the 1990’s, Conservative Party members routinely qualified candidates for all Congressional, State Senate, Assembly and NYC Council seats.
In 2010, the Conservative Party statewide was unable to field candidates on the ballot for 3 of 26 Congressional, 10 out of 61 Senate and 37 out of 150 State Assembly contests. In Queens, they were unable to field candidates on the ballot for 9 out of 17 State Assembly contests.
This decline coincides with the death of author and well known Conservative Party founder William F. Buckley in 2008. This parallels the Conservative Party entering the twilight of its own existence. Many are coming to the conclusion that some minor parties, such as the Conservatives, are yesterday’s news. The future demise of the Conservative Party can be traced to the profound impact of former Governor George “Taxpaki” Pataki. Ironically, Pataki was their keynote speaker at the recent convention. This group was founded in 1962 to provide a philosophical conservative alternative to the liberal Republican party then dominated by the late Governor Rockefeller, Senator Javits, State Attorney General Lefkowitz and NYC Mayor Lindsay. Building upon Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat, they ran Buckley for NYC Mayor in 1965. His wit, wisdom and well defined philosophical conservative positions gave them both credibility and 13.5% of the vote. In 1966, building upon both the Goldwater and Buckley campaigns, they ran Adams for Governor — they captured Row C from the Liberal Party in the 1966 election. They reached their peak in 1970 when they elected James L. Buckley to the U.S. Senate with just Conservative Party endorsement. They continued to play a critical role in electing D’Amato to the Senate in 1980, 1986 and 1992, along with President Reagan in 1980 and 1984 as well as President Bush in 1988.
With the election of Pataki as Governor in 1994, they morphed into a Republican Party subsidiary. Political patronage became more important than philosophical principles. Numerous Conservative Party leaders, activists and family members shared in Governor Pataki’s victory. They became beholden to the Governor by accepting employment in the Executive branch, agencies and quasi independent authorities controlled by Pataki. Former Governor Pataki’s fiscal policies of huge yearly multibillion dollar budget increases which were significantly above the rate of inflation and accompanying multibillion dollar yearly record growth in debt would have made former Conservative Party adversary Governor Rockefeller roll over in his grave! Others went to work for GOP Assembly and Senators who received Conservative party cross endorsements. They are now part of the permanent Albany establishment which their ancestors fought decades earlier. Not biting the hand that feeds them, they ignored his liberal tax and spend financial mismanagement and endorsed Governor Pataki for two additional terms in 1998 and 2002.
Their 1960s leadership would have not have endorsed, but run a candidate against Governor Pataki who would have been much closer to their limited government free enterprise positions of old.
The Liberal party following the same path of patronage over ideology eventually becoming irrelevant. They lost ballot status and were replaced by the Workers Family Party. While the Conservative Party leadership worshiped at the alter of Pataki/Bruno GOP Political Patronage, today they receive crumbs from Senate Republican minority leader Skelos and GOP Assembly minority leader Kolb. Libertarian, Green, Working Families and Independence parties stand for divergent philosophical principles. In 1998, the Independence Party received more votes for Governor claiming Row C and dropping the Conservatives to Row D for the first time in 30 years. It took them 12 years to reclaim Row “C”.
From their successful times in the 1960s, the Conservative Party has morphed into the Conservative Political Patronage Party, losing their vim and vigor. They have been unable to assist Republicans from losing eight Senate seats reducing them to a fragil one seat majority. The same is true for the loss of numerous former GOP Congressional and Assembly seats. There are few elected officials who win outright or whose margin of victory was a result of votes captured on the Conservative Party line. The late Bill Buckley’s past contributions as a candidate, author, newspaper columnist and publisher of National Review helped build the Conservative Party during its formative years decades ago. He would not be happy with what they have become.
Their impact is diminishing on the state landscape as they are entering the twilight of political history. Their leadership and enrollment base continues to both age and decline. Fewer new and younger voters are registering Conservative. Those who believe in limited government, free enterprise along with economic and civil liberties continue to look for other alternatives. In 2010, many voted for Kristin Davis (Anti-Prohibition), Warren Redich (Libertarian), Steve Cohen (TEA) or Carl Palidino (Taxpayers) party candidates for Governor rather than Row C.
It is possible that their candidate for Governor in 2014 may be unable to attract the minimum 50,000 votes necessary to maintain permanent ballot status.