ALBANY -- Four Republicans are considering a run for governor next year, contending that Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo can be stopped in his bid for a third term.
Sen. John DeFrancisco of Syracuse; Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb of the Finger Lakes; Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro; and Harry Wilson, a Westchester County financier all told the USA Today Network's Albany Bureau they plan to decide around the end of the year whether they will enter the GOP field for governor.
"I continue to weigh the trade-offs between the impacts I think I could have on the state and my commitments to my family, and I’m hoping to make a decision by year’s end," Wilson said Wednesday.
The potential candidates all talk optimistically about being able to run a formidable campaign against Cuomo, despite recognizing that they would be underdogs against a governor who has more money in his campaign coffers than any state official in the country and with the powers of the office at his disposal.
There's also history and statistics: No Republican has won statewide in New York since Gov. George Pataki was elected to a third term in 2002, and the state has twice as many Democrats as Republicans.
But the hopefuls said Cuomo has vulnerabilities. Cuomo is also believed to be considering a run for president in 2020 -- if he can get past his re-election.
They point to struggles turning around the upstate economy despite $8 billion a year in state incentives, a corruption scandal in his administration, and ongoing transit woes in New York City and its suburbs.
"I’m talking to a lot of people across the state, and there are a lot of people who are not happy with him: Republican, Democrats, independents alike," Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County, said.
For his part, Cuomo has boasted of the heaviest investment in upstate history, saying Tuesday in Syracuse: "I’ve done more for upstate economic development than any governor in the history of the state of New York."
He has talked about passing at least five rounds of ethics reforms to clean up Albany, cutting taxes and spending billions on infrastructure, including the subways, airports and bridges.
"New York waits for no one," Cuomo said Wednesday in Orange County.
"We're going to do our own $100 billion (infrastructure) project; We're in the middle of it. And New York, as you know it, is right now being transformed and is going to be a different fundamental state in just a few years."
Sen. John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse speaks to members in the Senate Chamber gallery at the Capitol on the opening day of the legislative session on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, in Albany, N.Y.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino was considered a top candidate to challenge Cuomo after running a competitive race against him in 2014. But his re-election loss Nov. 7 led him to say he's not going to run for governor in 2018.
Astorino opened the door slightly after his loss, saying on WGDJ-AM (1300) in Albany that he was listening to supporters who want him to reconsider. But he admitted a change of heart was unlikely.
So that has narrowed the GOP field, and party leaders appear most focused on Wilson.
He ran a strong race in 2010 for state comptroller against Democratic incumbent Thomas DiNapoli and has pledged putting as much as $10 million of his own money into a campaign.
"I know there are a lot of party leaders in both the Republican and Conservative parties that want to know what Harry Wilson will do first," Molinaro said. "And I can appreciate and understand that. I have a great deal of respect for Harry."
Said state Conservative Party chairman Mike Long about Wilson, "I think he’s the strongest potential candidate. I think he can lay out the strongest case against Cuomo."
State GOP chairman Ed Cox said he doesn't have a favorite, but there are many attributes he and others like about Wilson: He has run statewide before, has a record as a businessman of turning around companies and can self-finance a portion of the race.
But Wilson, 46, who grew up in the Mohawk Valley and lives in Scarsdale, said he hasn't made a final decision. He is former money manager and worked on President Obama's auto industry task force.
If he runs, Wilson said he knows the issues he would focus on.
"My core focus would be on the upstate economy, fixing the MTA and cleaning up corruption in Albany – three areas in which I think this governor totally failed, but are central to middle class New Yorkers across the state," he said.
Harry Wilson, who lives in Scarsdale, ran for state comptroller in 2010 and is a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2018.
Cuomo’s favorability in September rebounded from its lowest level this year in July, a Siena College poll found. His favorability was 56 percent to 37 percent.
Yet his job performance rating was a negative 43 percent to 55 percent, and while 48 percent of voters said they would vote for him in 2018, 44 percent said they would prefer "someone else."
Upstate, 61 percent of voters said they would prefer someone else. But Cuomo's poll numbers were strongest in New York City -- where Republicans statewide have struggled to gain any traction.
Geoff Berman, the executive director of the state Democratic Committee, said Cuomo has a strong record to bring before voters, including a higher minimum wage, paid-family leave, gun control and more money for schools and infrastructure.
"All while cutting taxes and getting New York's fiscal house in order," Berman continued.
And he lumped all the GOP candidates into the conservative wing of the party along with President Donald Trump, who remains unpopular in his home state.
"New Yorkers aren't stupid and are not going to be fooled by the empty rhetoric of Mercer-funded extreme conservatives and wanna-be Trump clones," Berman said.
"We will stand up and stand together to reject that kind of zealotry and continue to build on the governor's record of success."
Indeed, this year's elections in the New York City suburbs in particular showed a difficult climate for Republicans in the heavily blue state, mainly because of the discord in Washington.
But Republicans questioned whether that sentiment will carry over to next year's elections. There will be a number of political factors in New York, not the least of which is the corruption trials scheduled for Cuomo's former top aide Joseph Percoco.
"I really believe that each election is different," DeFrancisco, 71, said. "And when you’re talking about an election of a governor who is (seeking) his third term and has not delivered what he said he was going to do -- it’s a referendum on him on how well he did the job he said he was going to do."
Cuomo, though, estimated earlier this month that Republicans will have a hard time in New York next year.
"I think next year, it’s a better year for Democrats because the Republicans are not going to stop," Cuomo, 59, told reporters a day after Election Day earlier this month. "The Republican Party now is run by extreme conservative zealots."
Cuomo could also first face a Democratic primary next year amid ongoing dissension among liberal Democrats toward his policies.
But if he gets through that, one question will be whether national Republican donors will invest heavily in trying to stop Cuomo in 2018 as a prelude to 2020.
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb discusses the need for stronger oversight of the state's economic-development programs during a news conference at the state Capitol on Wednesday, June 7, 2017.
Cox said he sees that is a possibility. He, Kolb and Wilson all attended a conference of the Republican Governors Association earlier this month in Austin.
"He wants to use New York as a steppingstone for the presidency, and I don’t think New York voters will like it, and I don’t nationally it will be liked either," Cox charged.
Cuomo has said repeatedly that he's only focused on his re-election bid.
Meanwhile, the candidate said they will be spending the next several weeks contemplating their political plans.
"The reality still is: Am I the right person, and do I have the right infrastructure to lead a ticket and make a successful run?" Molinaro, 42, said.
"And if I don’t, I won’t."