MAGA and Martinis: Is This the Future of the N.Y. Republican Party?

Within three days and 160 miles of each other, two divergent paths for New York Republicans were on full display last week.

The first came at a subterranean bar in Little Italy in Manhattan, where Roger J. Stone Jr. held court as more than 200 millennial and millennial-adjacent Republicans nibbled on miniature pigs-in-a-blanket decorated with tiny Russian and Ukrainian flags.

The event, sponsored by the New York Young Republican Club, was eclectic and lively, with guests smoking cigars in the back garden and shouting over dance music inside.

“This is a Friday night in New York City, and we have 300 people here, and we’re piling people in,” said Gavin Wax, the club’s 29-year-old president, mingling with a deep crowd near the open bar. “So we’re doing something right.”

The next Monday, several hundred Republicans gathered at an airport Marriott in Albany to formally — and unanimously — vote to return Edward F. Cox, the 76-year-old son-in-law of Richard Nixon, to the post of party chair, in an event with no electronica or cigars, but lots of heavy emphasis on the nefariousness of the state’s dominant Democrats.

“Why is this fight so important?” Mr. Cox said after a round of thank-yous. “Because the far left Democrats running Albany are about one thing and one thing only: power.”

In many ways, Mr. Cox and Mr. Wax stand on opposite sides of a divide inside the state Republican Party, which has been feeling bullish since November, when it flipped four congressional seats and came within six points of defeating Gov. Kathy Hochul, the incumbent Democrat.

On one side are those like Mr. Wax, who hews to the combative model of former President Donald J. Trump and is dismissive of the party’s links to Rockefeller Republicanism, which favored a moderate mix of fiscal conservatism and tolerance on social issues.

Gavin Wax, right, suggested that if the new leader of the state Republicans shunned him and his group, it “would be to his detriment.”Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Indeed, Mr. Wax had even launched an unsuccessful last-minute effort to stop Mr. Cox from regaining the party chairmanship that he had previously filled from 2009 to 2019.

Mr. Wax found a kindred spirit at the downtown event on Friday: Vish Burra, the director of operations for Representative George Santos, the New York Republican whose long history of lies has been festooned with a nascent embrace of right-wing political positions. (Mr. Santos did not attend the event, which also featured performers engaging in a “burlesque dance battle.”)

Mr. Burra agreed that the “party establishment is trying to go to the left.”

“The leadership is simply not complying with the grass-roots energy,” he said. “They’re doing everything they can to kill it.”

Mr. Wax’s group functions as an entity distinct from the state Republican Party. Yet in many ways it is representative of the way the party transformed during the Trump era.

In December, Mr. Wax made headlines after he made remarks at a gala in Manhattan — attended by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and Stephen K. Bannon, both noted Trump allies — suggesting the Republicans should wage “total war” against the Democrats.

Mr. Wax later said he was merely using a military metaphor. But he also seemed unbothered by the bad press.

We’ve embraced controversy as a good marketing tool,” he said at the time. “And controversy sells.”

The gala remarks, as well as some by Ms. Greene that seemingly made light of Jan. 6, galled old-time party leaders like the former governor, George Pataki, the last Republican to win statewide office in 2002 and a former target of Mr. Stone’s attacks. Mr. Pataki said the remarks hurt any efforts to broaden his party’s appeal in New York.

“I just cringe horribly,” he said in an interview not long after the event. “It is the type of thing that is destructive of efforts to build the Republican constituency on the basis of a sound philosophy. It hurts.”

Edward Cox, right, in 2018, was chosen to reassume leadership of the state Republican Party.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

The radicalization of some New York Republicans began well before Mr. Trump kicked off a political career. It contributed to the Tea Party enthusiasm that vaulted Carl Paladino, a western New York Republican, to the 2010 ballot for governor.

Mr. Paladino’s history of racist, sexist and homophobic comments and his lack of a full-throated apology did not stop him from carrying the Republican banner. If anything, his campaign — a presage to Mr. Trump’s candidacy — served as a neon-sign warning to Democrats that bad behavior wasn’t a bar to entry in Republican politics anymore.

Last year, Mr. Paladino made a bid for a House seat and quickly won the endorsement of Representative Elise Stefanik, the “Ultra MAGA” upstate congresswoman and the third-highest ranking Republican in the party’s House majority.

He lost in the primary to Nick Langworthy, then the state Republican Party leader. Still, Mr. Paladino’s candidacy illustrated again that there are reservoirs of disenchanted conservative voters in a state where Republicans are badly outnumbered by Democrats, but where millions of voters also register as independent.

For his part, Mr. Paladino takes some credit for being the first in New York to embrace the type of Tea Party-era right-wing politics and outsize showmanship that was later mastered by Mr. Trump and embraced by Mr. Wax.

“I was outrageous as much as I could possibly be to get people’s attention,” he said in a recent interview.

In many ways, Mr. Stone, who remains close to Mr. Trump and his orbit, serves as a thread that stretches from the party’s old identity to its new one.

He famously has a giant tattoo of Mr. Nixon on his back and once worked on the presidential campaigns for President Ronald Reagan and Senator Bob Dole. Years later, he embraced the fringes of the Republican Party and remains one of the most notorious figures on the right, whose tactics have been decried by Democrats and a number of Republicans for decades.

He was convicted in 2019 of obstructing a congressional investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia but was later pardoned by Mr. Trump.

He was also a focus of the House select committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. Mr. Stone was in Washington that day, but has said he did not attend the rally before the attack and denied playing any role or having knowledge of what was going to take place.

He is a man who does not hesitate to pursue his own interests: The night after the Young Republican party, attendees were invited to attend a $375-a-plate dinner — with deviled eggs, prime rib and “Stone burgers” — that benefited Mr. Stone’s own legal defense fund.

Still, even Mr. Stone seems to recognize that winning a statewide race, something the party hasn’t done in two decades, will require winning over moderates.

We need to actually be a center-right party on crime and drugs and education,” he said, adding: “I don’t think that the America First appeal turns out voters in Long Island, turns out voters upstate. You’re really going to win here based on the failures of Democratic policies more than anything else.”

Roger Stone, center, a longtime adviser to former President Donald J. Trump, said that Mr. Trump’s America First agenda would be less effective in New York than in more conservative areas.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

As he poured martinis at the Young Republican event (using a recipe he says he learned from Mr. Nixon), Mr. Stone added that he had “high regard” for Mr. Cox and felt “the party is right where it needs to be,” pointing to the strong campaign that former Representative Lee Zeldin waged against Ms. Hochul.

But Mr. Wax, who was serving as bartender's assistant to Mr. Stone, expressed less enthusiasm for Mr. Cox.

“If he wants to work with us, it would be to his benefit,” he said. “And if he wants to shun us, it would be to his detriment. He can’t do anything to us, but we could certainly do a lot to him, both positively and negatively.”

Mr. Cox’s election on Monday was another example of the crosscurrents in the party: He was succeeding Mr. Langworthy, who — with the backing of Mr. Trump — had successfully maneuvered to replace Mr. Cox in 2019. On Monday, however, Mr. Langworthy, now a first-term congressman, praised Mr. Cox, saying he would make “an amazing leader.”

Mr. Cox is known as an avid fund-raiser, with deep, old-money connections in Manhattan. More recently, he and the former congressman John J. Faso successfully won a legal fight to overturn congressional lines drawn by Democrats and formed a super PAC to back Mr. Zeldin.

“We need a steady hand,” said Jesse Garcia, the Republican leader in Suffolk County on Long Island, where Republicans, led by Mr. Santos, swept all four congressional races in November.

Even Mr. Wax seemed to offer an olive branch — or an olive martini, perhaps — to Mr. Cox and others in the mainstream, saying that having a good time does not preclude winning elections.

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Mr. Wax said, adding, “I can have a great crowd, and a lot of people have fun. And then on Sunday morning, I could get 40 people to go door knock in Nassau County.”