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Paladino and New York’s Republicans

I wrote about a pair of candidates running in Tuesday’s primaries – Christine O’Donnell of Delaware and Ovide Lamontagne of New Hampshire – who would represent a potentially significant sacrifice of electability for ideological purity. I did not write about a third Northeastern candidate, a Buffalo businessman named Carl Paladino, whose race parallels theirs in certain ways.

Mr. Paladino, who is running for governor in New York, has a testy relationship with the Republican establishment, which tried to prevent him from appearing on the ballot. Like Ms. O’Donnell and Mr. Lamontagne, however, he has the support of most Tea Party groups – and he has substantially improved his position in polls, one of which now has him running even against the establishment’s preferred candidate, former Representative Rick Lazio.

Unlike Ms. O’Donnell and Mr. Lamontagne, Mr. Paladino’s nomination would not harm Republican electoral prospects in an immediate way. This is because, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecasting model, neither he, nor Mr. Lazio, would seem to stand much chance against Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic nominee. Our gubernatorial model regards Mr. Lazio as more than a 100-to-1 underdog to beat Mr. Cuomo – and Mr. Paladino as a 300-to-1 underdog. (Some tightening in the race is to be expected.)

Still, some establishment Republicans in New York seem concerned about Mr. Paladino, as The Times’s Michael Barbaro reported this morning. They have some decent reasons to be concerned. Although neither of the two Senate primaries that are on the ballot Tuesday looks as though they’ll be competitive, there are six House races in New York – in the First, 13th, 19th, 20th, 23rd and 24th Congressional Districts – in which each party has at least a 10 percent chance of winning. This gives New York the most competitive races of any state but Pennsylvania. And with New Yorkers expressing dissatisfaction with the dysfunctional State Senate, there could be a tidal wave in Albany, with issues from taxation to gay marriage potentially being affected by turnover there. If Mr. Paladino motivates Democrats – or does not motivate Republicans – liberal candidates could win more than their fair share of these races.

There could be other risks, too, if Mr. Paladino is the nominee. Along with Ms. O’Donnell, he could contribute to the narrative of Republican candidates being outside the mainstream (surely he will receive more attention than he otherwise might because of New York’s importance as a news media hub). I think this is actually something of a mixed blessing for Democrats – they seem to be so focused on defining candidates like Sharron Angle of Nevada, and Rand Paul of Kentucky, as being outside the mainstream, that they’ve forgotten to define much of their own agenda, and remember that it’s establishment Republicans – not upstarts – that the public has more unambiguously negative views about. Still, candidates like Mr. Paladino probably won’t do any favors to the Republican Party’s brand.

The animosity toward Mr. Paladino among Republican establishment figures, however, may ultimately stem from something different: that even in what is poised to be an excellent year for their party nationally, the Republican Party of New York State is increasingly impotent.

The state’s Republican Party was once very powerful. It helped elect iconic figures like Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits and Thomas Dewey, and in more recent years Rudolph W. Giuliani, George Pataki and Alfonse D’Amato. A quarter-century ago, 15 members of New York’s delegation to the House of Representatives were Republicans.

Now, however, only two members of New York’s Congressional delegation – Peter T. King of Long Island and Christopher Lee of the upstate 26th Congressional District – are Republicans. The party was unable to identify a nominee who stands a decent shot of defeating Mr. Cuomo, in spite of the peccadilloes of Gov. David Paterson and his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer. Nor do Republicans appear to have much chance in either Senate primary, including the one against Mr. Paterson’s appointee, Kirsten Gillibrand. And although Republicans stand a good chance of flipping a couple of House seats this November, they endured an embarrassment last year, when their hand-picked candidate in the special election in the 23rd Congressional District, Dede Scossafava, was usurped by the Conservative Party’s nominee, Doug Hoffman, and eventually dropped out of the race, perhaps handing it to the Democratic candidate, William Owens.

These trends speak to an atrophying Republican base in New York. In 1992, 32 percent of the state’s voters identified themselves as Republicans – whereas in 2008, just 26 percent did.

It’s safe to assume that most of the people who have departed the Republican Party are moderates (the ratio of conservatives, liberals and moderates in New York has not changed much over the past 16 years, according to the exit polls). What figures like Javits, Dewey and Giuliani had in common was that they were to some degree or another moderates, especially on social issues. And Rockefeller, who served as governor for 15 years before becoming vice president, was the impetus for the term Rockefeller Republican, which has fallen somewhat out of use today, but once designated a moderate (or even liberal) Republican.

These problems, of course, reverberate for Republicans elsewhere in the Northeast. After the 1994 elections, Republicans controlled 46 percent of the House seats in the six New England states plus the five Mid-Atlantic states (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania). But after the 2008 election, that number had dwindled to just 18 percent. Although their share will almost certainly improve some this year – we have Republicans favored to pick up a net of nine House seats in the region this November – the longer-term trend is striking.

The Northeast is a region perhaps underrated in its electoral importance to Republicans. With demographic trends tending to help Democrats in Western states like Colorado and Nevada, and some states in the coastal South like Virginia and North Carolina, the Republicans may eventually need to find new ground on which to compete. Take a state like New Jersey, for instance, which used to be considered a swing state in presidential elections but recently has favored the Democrats. Could the Republican presidential nominee threaten to win the state in 2012?

There are some reasons to think that he or she could. The Republican governor there, Chris Christie, is relatively popular, and the state has a lot of wealthy voters who might not appreciate Democratic plans to raise taxes on high-income earners. But a nominee from the more conservative side of the G.O.P. ledger – a Sarah Palin or a Mike Huckabee – may not appeal to a sufficient number of the state’s socially moderate independents.

If Mr. Paladino and Ms. O’Donnell win their primaries on Tuesday, moderate Republicans in New York and elsewhere in the Northeast might wonder whether there is any longer a place for them within the party. And if there isn’t a place for moderate Republicans in Delaware or New York, one wonders if there is a place for them anywhere.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.