New York State Senate Democrats have picked up seats in every presidential year in the past two decades. They’ve been chomping at the bit for Hillary Clinton, a former New York Senator, to head the presidential ticket, telling anyone who would listen that she would bolster turnout for them and win them swing districts, thereby securing them control of the chamber, perhaps for good.
What the Senate minority didn’t count on was the Republican presidential candidate being toxic to black and Hispanic voters and alienating a significant portion of his own base, giving even greater hope to Democrats for a takeover of the only lasting Republican stronghold in New York State government.
According to recent polls, that is exactly the situation Senate Democrats are in, and their optimism is running high. With less than three months until Election Day a Siena University poll released Monday found that in a two-way race, New York voters prefer Clinton to Donald Trump 57-27 percent.
Worse for Senate Republicans who hope to hold off Democrats in key races on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley is that Trump trails Clinton in both the suburbs and upstate by 11 and 8 points, respectively. “The top of the ticket has always had a major impact for us,” Democratic State Senator Mike Gianaris of Queens told Gotham Gazette, referring to the fact that more Democrats vote in presidential years than non-presidential years. “I think the top of the ticket is going to be a real problem for Senate Republicans.”
Scott Reif, spokesperson for Senate Republicans, sent Gotham Gazette the following statement: "Rather than hope and change, the entire campaign strategy of the Senate Democrats this year seems to be hope and hope. They hope that the Republican presidential candidate is a drag on the bottom of the ticket. They hope that Hillary Clinton has long enough coattails to sweep them into office. The Senate Democrats don't stand for anything and they have no vision for where they want to lead this state. We're going to grow our majority because we have delivered for hard working New Yorkers, starting with a $4.2 billion income tax cut that will slash middle-class taxes by 20 percent and a record level of support for education, including complete elimination of the GEA."
Mike Murphy, spokesperson for Senate Democrats, responded: “The GOP are getting desperate. This year will be a historic year for Democrats. The people are sick and tired of the Republican Conference that has blocked women's health choices, stood up for special interests and elected corrupt leader after corrupt leader.”
There are currently 32 Democrats and 31 Republicans in the chamber but Republicans maintain control with the help of Brooklyn Democrat Simcha Felder, who caucuses with Republicans, and the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, which has a governing coalition agreement with Republicans. The IDC appears to be in the process of strengthening its position and attempting to expand its membership in anticipation of Democratic victories. Meanwhile, leading Senate Democrats met with Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month to discuss efforts to win the chamber, as first reported by Politico New York.
Cuomo has historically allied himself with Senate Republicans, at times promising support to Senate Democrats that never appeared. Some insiders insist the meeting shows that Cuomo sees the writing on the wall and that he will look to keep his influence in the chamber by utilizing the IDC. Several Senate Democrats said that Cuomo has shown more interest in supporting Democrats this year than he has since he was elected in 2010. Still, Senate Democrats say as much as they would like his support, they aren’t counting on it.
According to Democrats, political experts, and polls, Trump is driving away parts of the Republican base. The GOP nominee’s rhetoric appears to be energizing pockets of new voters who want to see him defeated. Eighty-five percent of black voters surveyed said they would vote for Clinton if the contest was “held today,” with only 8 percent saying they would vote for Trump. Seventy-six percent of Latinos surveyed said they would vote for Clinton if the race was “held today,” while 10 percent said they would vote for Trump.
African-Americans and Hispanics are two voting blocs that will have major impact in races on Long Island. Senate Democrats have policies that appeal to many voters of color, including criminal justice reform measures and the DREAM Act, which provides financial aid to children of undocumented immigrants. Senate Republicans have blocked these reforms in Albany.
Republicans charge that Democrats have been bad for the economy, namely for small businesses and job creation, and point to an MTA tax put in place while the Democrats controlled the Senate from 2009 to 2010.
Senate Democrats have recent precedent on their side as their candidate, now Senator Todd Kaminsky, won the highly contested special election for the 9th Senate District in April to replace former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Skelos was forced from office after being convicted on multiple federal corruption charges.
“We had a test run where people thought Trump would be a draw and what we found is more Democrats turned out,” said Sen. Gianaris, who runs the Senate Democrats’ campaign efforts and noted the special election took place when Trump was riding high on primary victories and had yet to begin to self destruct.
Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, noted that Trump’s impact on down ballot races is hard to gauge at this point given his nontraditional candidacy. “The question is, ‘Can he motivate people to go to the polls who haven't voted before, who have not been polled?’ And then you have to factor in that the more people know about Trump, the less likely they are to vote for him”
However, Muzzio said that it is impossible for Republicans to ignore the results of the special election. “Kaminsky was still a test case and the results mean they are in trouble,” Muzzio told Gotham Gazette.
Evan Thies, founder of Brooklyn Strategies, a political consultancy used by Kaminsky, said that the trend he is fascinated by in current polls is the declining support of registered Republicans for their own party. “The biggest problem Trump created is not for himself but for the Republican Party. The favorability for the party itself has plummeted,” Thies told Gotham Gazette.
Thies said that since Trump won the nomination polls have shown more Republicans dissatisfied and disconnected from their party while Democrats’ favor for their own party has grown.
“If the election was held tomorrow, Trump could depress Republican turnout,” said Thies. “You could begin to see a concerted effort for down ballot Republicans to disassociate themselves with Trump and create a local brand.”
The Siena poll shows that in a head-to-head matchup 81 percent of Democrats surveyed said they would vote for Clinton, while only 55 percent of Republicans say they will vote for Trump. Meanwhile only 24 percent of voters surveyed saw Trump favorably with 72 percent saying they saw him unfavorably. Meanwhile, 52 percent of Republicans surveyed favored Trump with 46 percent saying they saw him unfavorably.
Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan gave a full-throated endorsement of Trump at the Republican National Convention in July. According to State of Politics he told the New York delegation: "I’m going to make this unequivocally clear: I’m supporting Donald Trump for President. I’m going to do so with grace, with diplomacy, with passion and with fervor, and I’m going to do it with New York style.”
Like Flanagan and Kaminsky, Senator Jack Martins represents part of Long Island. Martins decided, however, to forgo attempting reelection to run for an open Congressional seat. He has not endorsed Trump, something many Democrats see as a significant indication of Republicans’ fear of Trump’s impact on important Long Island races. The race to replace Martins in the 7th Senate District is one of the top races in the battle for Senate control.
Martins discussed his decision on Effective Radio with Bill Samuels on Sunday, saying, “Thankfully, I’ve always run as an individual. I’ve had the opportunity through elective office to take stances on different things and people know who I am, so I’ve been able to use that and show through experience that I listen, I work across the aisle, I get things done,” Martins said.
Seeking to replace Martins are Democrat Adam Haber, a businessman, and Republican Elaine Phillips, who is the mayor of Flower Hill. Haber, who unsuccessfully challenged Martins in 2014, is leading in fundraising. Democrats have a 20,000 voter enrollment advantage in the district and held the seat from 2007 to 2010. As in other swing districts, turnout will be key, and that is where Clinton and Trump may factor in decisively.
Sen. Kaminsky will again face Republican opponent Chris McGrath. Running as an Assembly member, Kaminsky won the special election by about 1,000 votes. Democrats think Kaminsky will perform even better as the incumbent and with Republican turnout suppressed by Trump’s performance. Republicans hope independents, who couldn’t vote in the Republican presidential primary, may now vote for McGrath when they come out to vote in November. But the recent Siena poll shows independent New York voters favor Clinton by about 10 percentage points, though it is not clear how Long Island independents feel.
Longtime Republican incumbent Senator Kemp Hannon of Garden City, the 6th Senate District, is battle tested, having dispatched a number of strong Democratic challenges. But this year he again faces Democrat Ryan Cronin, who he narrowly defeated in 2012. Hannon’s district has seen steady growth in Democratic registration and he could be in danger if Trump depresses Republican turnout.
Republican Senator Bill Larkin of the Hudson Valley’s 39th Senate District also faces a rematch against his 2012 challenger, Chris Eachus, who he defeated by five points. Many observers wondered whether the 88-year-old Larkin would run for reelection as he has kept an extremely low profile in the district. Democratic registration has also grown in this district with registered Democrats now outnumbering Republicans 62,824 to 50,130 amongst active voters.
Thies said that one key trend to watch in Long Island races is whether Trump’s position moves the needle on black and Latino turnout. “African-American and Latino voter numbers should give Democrats a big advantage in key races on Long Island,” said Thies, “but in previous years turnout didn't match registration. Trump has now poked a very big bear. If we see even a marginal uptick amongst African-American and Latino voters Republicans could face a major challenge.”
Democrats are hoping to unseat Republican Senator George Amedore, of the 46th Senate District, who soundly defeated Democratic incumbent Cecilia Tkaczyk in 2014. But in this case, as in many others, Democrats are hopeful that their candidate’s performance in past presidential election years is a sign of things to come. Amedore’s district was tailor-made for him in the 2010 redistricting process, but Tkaczyk narrowly won it in 2012, when President Obama was re-elected. The district continues to grow more Democratic and the challenger, Sara Niccoli, has out fundraised him. Democrats outnumber active Republican voters in the district 61,976 to 51,850.
Some Democratic operatives expect that Trump’s cratering poll numbers and controversial positions could put dark horse races in play - races that Senate Democrats haven’t invested in as of yet.
One of those races is for Senator Kathy Marchione’s 43rd district seat, where Republicans lead Democrats 62,268 to 53,650 in voter registration. The district is home to about 15,000 registered voters unaffiliated with a party, known as independents. It may now be in play thanks to Marchione’s botched reaction to water poisoning in the small town of Hoosick Falls.
Marchione, a Republican, flip-flopped on whether it was necessary to hold legislative oversight hearings on the state response to the Hoosick Falls crisis, and at one point introduced an amendment to her own bill designed to help residents sue companies for water poisoning that would have basically killed any chance of it passing both houses. Marchione then reversed herself after major backlash from residents and environmentalists. The Senate is now scheduled to hold hearings into Hoosick Falls at the end of August.
Marchione’s Democratic opponent, Shaun Francis, said he isn’t concerned about how his race plays into the larger political picture, whether it be Senate control or the presidential race. “Having poisoned water isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue,” Francis said in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “The incumbent’s actions in session really opened a lot of eyes in the district of people who were concerned for their health. Regardless of whether they were Republican or Democrat people in the district saw that she is incapable of doing her job.” Marchione’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Republican Senator Hugh Farley, 83 years old, has represented the 49th district that is comprised of Schenectady, Fulton, Herkimer and Saratoga Counties since 1977 and will not seek reelection. Pundits see his hand-picked successor, Assemblymember Jim Tedisco, as a sinch for the seat, but Tedisco lost a 2009 Congressional bid to Democrat Scott Murphy despite running in a district with Republican registration advantage and having significantly better name recognition. Republicans currently hold a 67,924 to 53,012 active voter registration advantage in the district. Democratic challenger Chad Putman holds little name recognition in the district but depressed Republican turnout could make the race closer than expected.
Muzzio said he expects to see some Senate Republicans “disavow Trump” in the coming weeks if his current trajectory continues, but in Upstate districts Muzzio said he isn’t sure Trump will actually be a hinderance. “I expect in some Upstate districts we will see turnout for Trump higher than for Democrats,” said Muzzio. He also warned that the presidential race has already been so volatile that he wouldn’t be surprised to see the dynamics shifted by an outside force, like more damaging documents leaked about Clinton, or revelations from investigations into her use of the Clinton Foundation or of her home-made email system.
Thies said that despite the good news Democrats see in Trump’s recent poll numbers they are aware that there is more at play and more to do in the battle for Senate control. “Their position is looking good, but they still have to get their message out to voters,” he said of Democrats. “You will not see anyone taking their foot off the gas pedal because the stakes are too high and you could very well see down ballot Republicans utilizing an effective vote-local message.”
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette