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Assessing the Spitzer Fallout

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) has remained mum about his political future following Monday's revelations that he has been involved in a prostitution ring. His silence, however, won't quiet speculation about what effect the scandal will have on the state and national scene.

Let's start on the national end first, since it's the simpler question to answer.

Sex scandals have roiled national politics for much of the past decade -- beginning with former president Bill Clinton and his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and running through former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey (D), former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho). (Heck, sex and Washington go back much further, of course -- Bob Packwood, Wilbur Mills ... .)

Unfortunately for Republicans, the last several sex-related scandals have involved their own; Foley's inappropriate relations with House pages in the fall of 2006 made a bad election year even worse for the GOP. The weight of the scandals certainly tarnished the Republican brand. Asked which party would do a better job of "improving morality in this country" in a recent Pew poll, 44 percent of the sample said Democrats while just 34 percent said Republicans.

As Spitzer twists in the wind -- and the media covers every jot and tittle of the story -- Democrats could experience a short-term brand problem as voters recoil in disgust. The more likely atmospheric impact is "a pox on both your houses" attitude from voters, as the electorate grows more and more frustrated with the actions of their elected officials.

The fallout at the presidential level is likely to be minor. Yes, Spitzer was supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), but he was far from an active advocate. In retrospect, it won't even be this sex scandal that Spitzer is most remembered for in the Democratic presidential fight. Remember: It was Spitzer's proposal to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants that tripped up Clinton in a debate in Philadelphia last fall -- a moment seen as the beginning of a long slide for her campaign.

While the story's echoes on the national level are likely to be soft, the scandal is like a sonic boom in the Empire State.

Over the last few elections, New York Democrats have seized a stranglehold on state politics -- now controlling all four statewide offices as well as the state Assembly. (Republicans still narrowly control the state Senate.) At the federal level, Democrats control both Senate seats and 23 out of the state's 29 House seats. John Kerry carried the state 58 percent to 40 percent in 2004; Al Gore took the state 60 percent to 35 percent four years earlier.

Spitzer's election in 2006 ended 12 straight years of Republican rule in Albany (courtesy of George Pataki) and was widely regarded as the final piece in Democrats' march to domination of the state's politics.

It may now be that Spitzer's election in 2006 will open the door for a Republican comeback. Assuming Spitzer resigns and Lt. Gov. David Paterson ascends to fill the remainder of the term, Republicans will have a far better chance of taking back the state's top post than they could reasonably have hoped for just few months ago.

The strongest candidates on paper are New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (now an indenpendent but won his office as a Republican), and Rudy Giuliani.

Bloomberg is extremely popular in the City. He's massively wealthy to boot, so much so that he contemplated an independent bid for president earlier this year. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed seven-in-ten New York City voters believed Bloomberg would make a good governor.

The problem for Bloomberg is that while he boasts some fiscal conservative bona fides, he is socially liberal and was a registered Democrat until he decided to run for mayor in 2001.

Giuliani, having watched his presidential bid fall far short this year, could well be looking for a way back into politics, and serving as the state's chief executive would surely appeal to Hizzoner. The question for Giuliani is whether he did himself any extended damage in the state during his underwhelming presidential bid.

The Democratic field is far more jumbled, although three names -- other than Paterson -- jump immediately to mind.

The first is Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), who weighed a run for governor in 2006 before deciding to stay in the Senate, enticed with a seat on the Finance Committee. Schumer has since emerged as a major star within the party thanks to his successful stewardship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2006 and so far this cycle. Schumer would be up for a third Senate term in 2010 and could well decide to jump. If he does, he would likely be the early primary favorite given his fundraising ability, tireless campaign style and political savvy.

The second is state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the son of former New York governor Mario Cuomo. Andrew Cuomo was seen as something of a rising star in Democratic politics when he ran for governor in 2002 but saw his star significantly tarnished in that year's primary, which he lost to state Comptroller Carl McCall. Cuomo bounced back in 2006 by winning the attorney general's race and recent polling has shown that he is well liked by the state's voters.

The final member of the Democratic trio is Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who ran a quixotic primary challenge to Spitzer, accusing the then-Attorney General of ethical lapses -- charges that now may well have an "I told you so" ring to it.

The wild card in all of these calculations is what Paterson will do if he does become governor. If Spitzer steps aside sometime soon, Paterson will have the better part of the next 18 months to serve as a governor -- a powerful launching pad for a run for a full term if the lieutenant governor is indeed interested.

New York politicos -- we know you're out there. Who did we miss in terms of an early handicapping of the 2010 governor's race? The comments section awaits your wisdom.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 11, 2008; 11:08 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008 , Governors  
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