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Nation to State to Counties, GOP Weathers Peril '08

By Dan Janison

From his unique perch as Long Island's lone Republican congressman, Rep. Peter King sees a difference between the trouble his party faces in the region and the electoral peril it confronts across America.

"I think they're two separate \[problems\] that came together at the same time," King said yesterday. "There were local issues, going back to the late 1990s, in Nassau County with its budget problems. And Suffolk has had a disunited Republican party. Even just taking the congressional seats on Long Island, we didn't lose any of them due to national issues," he said, as some local losses came in otherwise flush GOP years.

King, a backer of President George W. Bush and the military effort in Iraq, acknowledged that the war has hurt the administration's popularity, given "harsh" media coverage, and that gas prices haven't helped.

Whatever the reasons, numbers published this week from 26 of the 29 states where voters register by party show GOP enrollment declining since 2005. Voter affiliation with Democrats or with no political party has risen overall. In Iowa and Nevada, Democratic registration surpassed Republican.

In Nassau, some Democrats follow the steady closing of the enrollment gap between their party and the once-mighty GOP with the zest of New Year's Eve revelers counting down the seconds to midnight. Ten years ago, Republicans held an enrollment edge of 100,000. In November, that was down to about 22,000. This week the margin stands at 13,000 and shrinking, said Nassau Democratic election commissioner Bill Biamonte.

"Demographics" is often the explanation -- more immigrants, more racial minorities, more young people, who often enroll as Democrats or unaffiliated, the waning of a previous generation. "For one," Biamonte explains, "young people coming of age are simply not registering en masse as Republicans, in contrast to their parents. And second, the diverse migration of people from outside Nassau feel that the Democratic Party is more about economic empowerment and plurality as they move into a suburban lifestyle."

But sociology explains only so much.

No red-state army has invaded New York City, where Democrats dominate -- yet the powerful mayoralty is in its 15th year of control by men elected as Republicans.

For the majority parties in both Long Island and the city, the basics skills involved in party organizing have eroded -- a fact of public life often noted with alarm by both critics of the current party duopoly and its participants.

Political scientist Stanley B. Klein of C.W. Post, a Republican, wrote a report analyzing the performance of the Suffolk GOP County Committee, highlighting a failure to fill vacancies on the county committee. "What is shocking is that three of the four largest towns in Suffolk County, Brookhaven, Babylon and Islip, have reported the largest percentage of vacancies of committeemen," Klein wrote. The rates were 36 percent, 46 percent, and 44 percent.

Jerry Skurnik, longtime consultant to Democratic candidates, sees the nationwide and the local trends as distinct. "Nationally, it's not demographics. I think Bush has ruined the brand. For 30 or 40 years Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover. And for 20 or 25 years, Republicans were running against Jimmy Carter," he said. "We don't know how long Democrats will be running against Bush."

In a televised interview the other night, state Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) predicted his embattled majority will survive and expand in the fall. But he also said: "The Republican Party has to rebuild from the bottom up ... from the grass roots."

Added King yesterday: "We have to start recruiting again, and let people know this is not an exclusive club, and try to find new faces and talent" -- and trumpet what he sees as the party's strong stances on security and energy.

Dan Janison writes and reports for Newsday's Spin Cycle blog