Republicans have no shortage of possible gubernatorial candidates in 2018. Two county executives. A corporate restructuring expert. A Buffalo-area businessman.
And then there's state Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican who serves as Senate deputy majority leader. Earlier this month, he told The Citizen that he was exploring a run for governor in 2018.
The main reason for DeFrancisco's interest in the race is New York's population decline. Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were 19,745,289 people living in the state, down from 19,747,183 in 2015. More than 191,000 people left New York for other states.
"I think that's the best evidence that the direction has to change," he said in a follow-up interview with The Citizen.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, is planning to seek a third term in 2018. He's also been floated as a potential candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. But next year's gubernatorial campaign will test his popularity at home — and could be a make-or-break moment for his presidential aspirations.
The advantage for Cuomo is his campaign war chest. He has $25.6 million in the bank, according to his most recent financial filing. DeFrancisco, who has been one of the Senate's best fundraisers, has $1.4 million between his two campaign committees.
But DeFrancisco isn't intimidated by Cuomo's bankroll. And he believes other candidates shouldn't be either.
Cuomo's poll numbers are starting to go down, DeFrancisco said. A Siena College poll released in July found the governor's favorable rating was 52 percent — his lowest in more than a year. His job approval numbers took a hit. And the percentage of voters who said they would re-elect him in 2018 fell from 53 percent in May to 46 percent last month.
The decline in the polls has been attributed to Cuomo's handling of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's woes and what he dubbed as "the summer of hell" for mass transit users. Subway delays have been a problem. Upgraded infrastructure is needed.
While the MTA oversees mass transit in downstate, DeFrancisco is aware of the problems facing the agency. He is the former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee — a post he held for years before becoming deputy majority leader.
He said there should be more state funding to address the MTA's problems and other infrastructure needs across the state.
DeFrancisco criticized Cuomo for how the state has spent bank settlement money. The state received close to $10 billion in settlements over the last few years. Some of the money was allocated for infrastructure projects. But funding was used for other purposes, including the governor's economic initiatives.
"This is a simple solution," he said. "Infrastructure is falling apart. You have to provide funding for infrastructure."
DeFrancisco and other Republican leaders are quick to note that they aren't alone in opposition to Cuomo. Another potential candidate for governor, Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, was mentioned in conversations with DeFrancisco and Onondaga County Republican Chairman Tom Dadey. Miner, a Democrat, is considering a gubernatorial bid in 2018.
Other Democrats are interested in the race, too. Cynthia Nixon, an actress best known for her role on "Sex and the City" who has become an outspoken education advocate in recent years, said she may challenge Cuomo next year.
DeFrancisco believes voter distrust of Cuomo is one reason why he could face stiff challenges from the right and left.
"Once you don't trust somebody, it should be difficult for the general public to just ignore the race because's he's got a lot of money," he said.
There are other challenges for Republicans in any gubernatorial campaign. Democrats have an enrollment advantage in New York. According to the latest enrollment figures posted by the state Board of Elections, there are 3 million more active Democratic voters.
Republicans believe they can win upstate and Long Island in 2018. The key will be New York City. If they can win 30 percent of the vote in the city, they're confident they can win the race for governor.
Whether that candidate is DeFrancisco is up to him — and Republican leaders.
DeFrancisco has made it known that his decision to run for governor will be based on reaction from party leaders. If the support for his candidacy is there, he'll enter the race. If not, he'll step aside.
Dadey, who lives in DeFrancisco's Senate district, compared the 2018 race to 1994, when another Cuomo — the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, the current governor's father — was on the ballot. Mario Cuomo sought a fourth term as governor, but lost to Republican challenger George Pataki, a former state senator.
"There's sort of a playbook and a history for this," Dadey said. He added that DeFrancisco is "somebody who clearly understands the issues and is not afraid to go after (Andrew) Cuomo."
Steve Bulger, chairman of the Saratoga County Republican Committee, recently hosted DeFrancisco at the local party's clambake in July. In a phone interview Friday, Bulger said DeFrancisco was introduced at the event by two of his colleagues — state Sens. Kathy Marchione and James Tedisco.
DeFrancisco's speech at the event focused on state government and the importance of retaining GOP control of the state Senate, Bulger said.
"He understands how Albany works," Bulger said. "He still is carrying the torch for a lot of Republicans and conservatives across the state there in the Senate ... His adherence to the things that are important to upstate residents, I think, will put him in a good position if he does decide to go forward for a governor's run next year."
If DeFrancisco does run, Democrats are eager to challenge him on his policy positions.
Basil Smikle Jr., executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, released a statement days after DeFrancisco and Carl Paladino, a Buffalo-area businessman who lost to Cuomo in 2010, publicly expressed their interest in running for governor in 2018.
"They are both from the same end of the ultra-conservative right wing of the Republican Party," he said. "They are against women's rights, LGBT rights, fight for the 1 percent at the expense of everyone else, and promote anti-working class agendas. They both pray at the altar of Trump University. They both talk a big game, and they both have big egos.
He added, "If they run they will lose, handily. We don't see a scenario where their talk of running for governor is anything other than an exercise in their outsized vanity. I guess we'll see."
DeFrancisco isn't taking his exploratory effort lightly. In addition to Saratoga County, he planned to attend events this month in Erie, Livingston and Oswego counties. He said he would add more to his schedule in the coming weeks.
Even if he decides not to run, his goal is to help Republicans field a legitimate contender who can defeat Cuomo in 2018.
"I just think we gotta have a real, serious debate," he said. "Somebody who can discuss the issues with a lot of experience and, I think, increase the level of discourse rather than have a candidate come forward just to have a candidate on the line."