George Maragos stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue earlier this month and looked a little confused. Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and much of the political class from the city and the state had gathered there for the start of the annual Columbus Day parade—though they were at the moment nowhere to be found. A marching band started up, and Mr. Maragos hurried to the side of the street. It seemed as if the rest of the politicians had already left the departure point, and that much of the parade had passed him by.
Six months prior, Mr. Maragos began a his quest to unseat Kirsten Gillibrand from her perch in the U.S. Senate. It was a curious decision, since Ms. Gillibrand has been able to regularly post $3 million fund-raising quarters, and if anyone was serious about beating her, it would have been wiser to give it a go back in 2010, when she was facing statewide voters for the first time after being plucked from congressional obscurity by then-Governor David Paterson to serve out the rest of Hillary Clinton’s term.
In the two years since then, Ms. Gillibrand has revealed an uncanny ability to keep legitimate contenders from challenging her. In 2010, Harold Ford, Scott Stringer, Carolyn McCarthy, Carolyn Maloney and Steve Israel considered and then reconsidered the idea—and those are just the Democrats. On the Republican side, Diana Taylor, Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, Mort Zuckerman, Peter King, Liz Feld, Dan Senor and a handful of upstate county executives took long looks at mounting a campaign before eventually deciding against it. The Republicans threw up three no-name candidates, and the one to emerge, former (very former—he got bumped from his seat in 1988) Congressman Joe Dioguardi, lost by nearly 30 points.
This time around, Ms. Gillibrand appears to be, if not vulnerable, certainly beatable. A Siena poll released last month showed that only 45 percent of New Yorkers planned to vote for her in 2012, and 46 percent viewed her favorably, well below the threshold that allows incumbents to rest easy. State Republican chairman Ed Cox proclaimed that beating Ms. Gillibrand was his party’s number one priority. And then Republican businessman Bob Turner easily won a special congressional election in Brooklyn and Queens by making the race a referendum on the Obama administration. Polls show that Mitt Romney runs even with President Obama among constituencies considered crucial for statewide Republicans, like upstate and Catholic voters.
Surely into this breach would come a flood of well-funded, highly qualified candidates, ready to drive a Tea Party stake through Ms. Gillibrand’s Democratic heart, right? But no. Instead, nearly every week, George Maragos, a soft-spoken, diminutive former businessman with a thick foreign accent, travels to the far reaches of New York State, attending the Cattaraugus County Republican Committee Dinner one night, the Franklin County Republican Fall Cocktail Reception the next, the Monroe County previctory celebration the following.
That Mr. Maragos hasn’t run in to any other potential candidates when he rubs shoulders with the rural Republicans redounds to his benefit, but it also could give a thoughtful candidate pause. If the water is so fine, how come no one else has jumped in?
“Well, there aren’t that many Republicans that have elected office and have the resources,” he said. “And have a clean record! And that’s important. It means the candidate has been vetted by the media, by the various parties, by the opposition, and has a record of expressing views and some accomplishments.”
Mr. Maragos’s formulation is correct—despite big gains at the ballot box over the past two years, there still simply aren’t enough Republicans around to break a Democratic stranglehold that has seen the G.O.P. lose 12 of the past 13 statewide races. If Ms. Gillibrand is able to win re-election this time around, New York Republicans say that they see themselves shut out of the U.S. Senate for a long, long time to come, with the popular Mr. Schumer holding down one seat and Ms. Gillibrand gradually becoming better known around the state and accruing seniority down in Washington.
But sources close to the state Republican Party say that outside of a few very preliminary feelers, the number of people lining up to take on Ms. Gillibrand remains at one: Mr. Maragos.
“My strategy is, raise the bar for anybody else to come in, because it takes time to build relationships, to go to events, to make contributions to help other people who are running,” he said earlier this week in an interview.
He sat at a midtown hotel restaurant with his hands folded in front of him like a 61-year-old school boy, preparing to tuck into a charcuterie plate of farmer’s paté, rabbit terrine and foie gras.
“I hope I’ve communicated a sense of determination and credibility in order to make perhaps somebody else think twice about jumping in.”
That Mr. Maragos has come even this far up the political ladder is a little unlikely. A Greek immigrant by way of Montreal, he worked for Chase and Citibank before starting his own company, a firm that, like Bloomberg LP in the early days, provided real-time financial data to its clients. After one of his sons mounted a long-shot City Council campaign in Long Island City, Queens, Mr. Maragos decided to try his own hand at politics. He wanted to run for state comptroller, but was gently dissuaded by Nassau County Republican Party boss Joe Mondello, who suggested Nassau County comptroller instead. Historically, county comptrollers have not had much political success trying to move up. The job is too wonky and technocratic, and outside of New York City, the holders of the office remain fairly anonymous. Still, it’s a start and in a year which saw Republicans roar into local offices that had long been held by Democrats, Mr. Maragos eked out a 500-vote victory against the Democratic incumbent. He immediately set his sights on statewide office, declaring he would challenge Chuck Schumer, who had won re-election the previous time by 47 points. Mr. Maragos failed to make the ballot, but then quickly turned around and declared that he would run against Ms. Gillibrand.
There is still time for someone else to vie for the Republican nomination—someone like Maggie Brooks, the popular county executive of Monroe, or Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and Fox News talking head—but the window is quickly closing. Running statewide in New York costs around $20 million, and anybody who hopes to raise that sum had better start soon.
And so Republicans are reconciling themselves to Mr. Maragos.
“He’s got a great story, and he’s an affable guy,” said one top Republican official. “But he’s not a very captivating person. He has a pretty heavy accent. He is getting better on the stump, but if you are going to run statewide you’ve got to be able to get in front of an audience and hold then in the palm of your hand.”
Mr. Maragos fits the political profile of other Republicans who have had to navigate a conservative primary electorate only to go down to defeat when it comes time to sway independent voters. He is pro-life. He is anti-gay marriage. He is anti-gun control. He is against higher taxes on upper income earners. And he is withering in his criticism of Ms. Gillibrand, accusing her of not delivering for New York and ducking the major issues of the day.
He has even criticized her most recent initiative “Off the Sidelines” to get more women involved in politics.
“It’s a worthwhile endeavor,” he explained, “but I think women can make up their own minds. We’ve got a lot of educated women, a lot of accomplished women, and they can decide for themselves if and when they appropriately want to get into politics.”
The dream Republican candidate would be someone wealthy enough that the $20 million price tag could largely be paid for out of his or her own pocket. The number of people with that kind of money to throw around and who want to commute weekly to Washington, D.C., is relatively small. Mr. Maragos said that he is willing to throw in around $5 million of his money, but, bizarrely, won’t fund-raise until after he has secured the nomination, partially because he expects to have the field to himself.
“I was up in Monroe County last week, and [Maggie Brooks] is focused on winning re-election as county executive. My sense from talking to people up there is that she is not going to run—there was a controversial report that the state comptroller issued recently regarding some of the things going on up there.”
And what about Mr. Senor, whom many Democrats say would have had the best shot at beating Ms. Gillibrand last year?
“I don’t consider Dan Senor a serious candidate. I am sorry, but he was a press person in Iraq. … Looking at it in terms of executive accomplishments, there aren’t any in government or in the private sector.”
But what about any of the half-dozen members of Congress who were elected last year? What about any of the half-dozen Republican county executives who at the very least could cite their record at running something?
Mr. Maragos laughed and forked a bite from his terrine.
“I don’t know. Maybe they are smarter than me.”