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Democrats Eye Supermajority, Republicans Look to Regain Seats: The 2020 New York State Senate Battle

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Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (photo: NY Senate)

Two years ago, Democrats won a majority in the New York State Senate for the first time in eight years, winning full control of the state Legislature and the governor’s office and allowing them to pursue a raft of progressive legislation that had stalled under Republican obstruction. As the New York GOP has continued to diminish since that election, including another wave of retirements among state senators, and as President Donald Trump remains unpopular in the state, Democrats now see an opportunity to pick up even more seats and win a supermajority in the Senate to match that has long existed in the Assembly.

But, Republican leaders in the state have professed their own optimism given Trump’s presence at the top of the ballot this year, driving base turnout unlike two years ago, when the party also lost several seats in the House of Representatives, and ongoing criticism of criminal justice reforms passed by the Democrats in Albany. While GOP officials have been hesitant to predict they will regain the state Senate majority via this year’s elections, they do say they will chip away at the wide margin Democrats ran up in 2018.

The Democratic Party holds 40 out of 63 state Senate seats and needs only two more for a veto-proof supermajority. The party has long enjoyed a dominant lead in the 150-seat Assembly, currently holding 103 seats, but power in the Senate had for the most part eluded them before 2018. That year, propelled by a surge in Democratic turnout largely driven by anger against Trump, a slew of progressive Democrats deposed moderate members of their party who had made up the erstwhile Independent Democratic Conference, which caucused with Republicans and helped them control the chamber, in the primaries and a half-dozen others flipped seats on Long Island, in Southern Brooklyn, and north of the five boroughs. 

Since 2018, there have been several retirements and resignations by GOP incumbents, including the most recent Republican majority leader, John Flanagan of Long Island, opening up an opportunity for Democrats to expand their power. Three Senate seats, including Flanagan’s District 2 (which isn’t seen as competitive, though), already lie vacant while Republicans hold 20 going into this election.

According to a spokesperson for the Senate Democratic conference, Democrats have their eye on picking up seats in ten districts recently or currently held by Republicans covering Long Island, the Hudson Valley, and Western New York – they are comfortable that they will win Districts 1, 41, 46, 50, 55, 56 and 60, while Districts 4, 51, and 61 seem to them to be leaning blue.

Senate Democrats consider themselves on the defensive in five seats they hold – they view Districts 3 and 40 as the most competitive races with Republican challengers while they expect to hold competitive Districts 6, 22, and 42, though they note those have seen heavy expenditures by the GOP and from independent entities. District 22 is the lone state Senate swing district in New York City, a Southern Brooklyn seat that Democrat Andrew Gounardes flipped in 2018 and is attempting to hold onto this year.

Senator Michael Gianaris, deputy majority leader and chair of the state’s Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said in an interview he’s “very optimistic” about the election. “It was hard enough to get 40 [seats],” he said. “Adding a couple to that is going to be an unprecedented majority, but we're working towards it.”

Gianaris said there are several factors at play. The party enjoys a significant voter enrollment advantage – as of February 21, there were 6.56 million registered Democrats statewide, compared to 2.84 million Republicans and 2.82 million independent voters who are not registered with any political party. The prevailing sentiment against the president, “the strength of our incumbents, the success of our first term in the majority, the tidal wave of Republican retirements that have opened seats in districts that have a Democratic registration advantage is a factor. So there's a lot of reasons why I believe we're headed that way,” Gianaris said.  

A spokesperson for Senate Republicans, however, said party leaders anticipate holding on to all of their seats, including the “open” seats where no incumbent is running in Districts 1, 2, 40, 45, 50, 51, 55, 56, 60 and 61. They believe that seven of their candidates challenging incumbent Democrats are in competitive, winnable races in Districts 3, 6, 22, 39, 40, 41, and 42.

The best case scenario for Republicans appears to be if they hang on to the seats they currently hold or were most recently held by Republicans, and also win back five seats from Democrats, which would still leave them short of recapturing the majority in the chamber, but help set the stage for additional wins in 2022. Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt and State Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy did not provide comment for this article despite multiple requests.

Former Senate Majority and Minority Leader Flanagan’s seat is a safe bet for Republicans. The party’s candidate is local union leader Mario Mattera, who is running against Democrat Michael Siderakis, a former state trooper. It's one of the few Senate districts where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats.

Democrats are also vastly outspending their opponents, a shift from previous elections when major special interests backed the GOP. But Democrats are faced with a torrent of independent expenditures, largely from police unions and billionaire cosmetics heir Ron Lauder. The police unions have already put more than $1 million into Republican senate races, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. And Lauder has given about $4.8 million to an independent expenditure group he created, Safer Together New York, of which about $4.5 million has gone out the door. The expenditure campaigns have been premised on opposition to criminal justice reforms passed by the Democratic Legislature, and have taken particular aim at a major reform to bail laws, which they have blamed without direct evidence for contributing to spikes in violent crime and a drop in quality of life. 

Langworthy has amplified that argument, as have legislative candidates across the state hoping they can persuade moderate Democrats and independent voters. “That's gonna be an issue that looms large over every state Senate district, in every state Assembly district, in every Congressional district where the Democratic incumbent either voted for that policy or stands with that bail and discovery reform,” he said in an interview on WMHT last month. “You know, you've got the rest of the country looking to New York and California saying don't let us become like them, because they see what's happened here with these ultra liberal policies that have really gutted the opportunity for our law enforcement officials to do their job.”

Gianaris said he isn’t worried about the attacks against his party. “Somehow, over the last decade, it seems that the big dark money always flows for the Republicans rather than against them. And we won regardless. So we know how to deal with this,” he said. There have been independent expenditures in favor of Democrats as well, and some of the big special interest donors that gave to the New York GOP shifted their giving to the Democrats once the latter took the Senate majority via the 2018 elections. 

For Democrats, a supermajority in the Senate will mean the potential to claw back some power from Governor Cuomo, who has only expanded his authority in the last few months, particularly over the state budget, in response to the coronavirus pandemic and with the support of the Legislature. Whether Democrats in the Legislature would take a much more aggressive stance toward Cuomo is yet to be seen. But the possibility of such dynamics is an intriguing subplot of the election cycle.

Though dual supermajorities would allow Democratic legislators to override a veto by the governor and pass the types of legislation he has consistently opposed – higher taxes on the wealthy, for instance – it’s unclear whether the legislative chambers would use that tactic. “The governor's never had a veto overridden and I don't know that it would ever come to that,” Gianaris said. “What tends to happen is people realize what the possibilities are and what the math is and that affects the negotiated outcome.”

With two legislative supermajorities Democrats would also have a stronger hand in the redistricting process that will kick off after Census data is delivered from Congress to the states for electoral apportionment.

Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant at the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, said in a phone interview that this year’s election is unlike previous ones. “Usually in a given cycle, there's four to seven challenge races, real hard contested, swing or marginal races, ten at the absolute tops. This year, you have 16,” he said of the State Senate. “That is an astounding anomaly.”

As Gyory sees it, Republicans are hoping to win more moderate upstate and suburban districts by harping on the leftward swing driven by downstate Democrats, and Democrats are relying on strong candidates with good fundraising while making the argument that “Trump is a pair of cement shoes around the ankles of any Republican in a suburban area.”

“This is a good year to run as a Democrat,” Gyory added. 

Jerry Skurnik, a long-time political consultant at Prime New York and former aide to Mayor Ed Koch, agreed. “I think Democrats have a good chance to reelect almost all their incumbents, if not all of them, and pick up four or five seats,” he said of the State Senate. “New York State is becoming more Democratic in general and I think Trump's election has moved it even further. Just like Trump's having problems with suburban voters outside of Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta, he’s even more so having those problems in New York.”

Where Democrats See Pick-Ups
In District 1 on Long Island, Republican Kenneth LaValle is retiring after 44 years in office when his term ends this year. Democrat Laura Ahearn, an attorney and social worker, is running against sitting Assemblymember Anthony Palumbo, formerly a Suffolk County prosecutor. The district covers the eastern side of Suffolk County.

In District 41, which covers most of Dutchess County and parts of Putnam County, Democrat Karen Smythe is challenging Republican State Senator Sue Serino for the second time after losing to her in 2018. That year, Smythe lost by only 688 votes and now has a better funded campaign in a district that has become more blue since her loss.  

In District 46, Republican State Senator George Amedore’s retirement has given Democrats an opportunity for another seat. The district covers Montgomery County and Greene County and includes parts of Albany, Schenectady, and Ulster counties. Democrat Michelle Hinchey, daughter of late U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, is seeking the seat, running against Republican Richard Amedure, a retired state trooper.  

In District 50, which covers the Syracuse region, Republican State Senator Bob Antonacci left the Senate after being elected a state Supreme Court judge last year, leaving the seat vacant. Democrat John Mannio, a teacher, is hoping to take his place, facing off against Republican Angi Renna. 

In District 55, which includes parts of Ontario County and Monroe County, Republican Senator Rich Funke decided he would not run for reelection, kicking off a competitive race Democrats believe they will win. Democrat Samra Brouk is running against Republican Chris Missick, an Army veteran and attorney.

In District 56, which falls entirely in Monroe County, Republican Senator Chris Robach is also retiring. Democrat Jeremy Cooney, the former chief of staff to Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren who unsuccessfully challenged Robach in 2018, is running for the seat a second time and faces Republican Mike Barry Jr., a Council Member from the town of Greece, in a district where Democrats have a strong enrollment advantage. 

In District 60, the seat has been vacant since State Senator Chris Jacobs won a special election to the 27th Congressional District earlier this year. Democratic Assemblymember Sean Ryan is vying to replace him, facing off against Republican attorney Joshua Mertzlufft.

Democrats See A Solid Chance
The District 4 seat on Long Island is currently held by Republican State Senator Phil Boyle, who nearly lost in 2018 to Lou D’Amaro, a Suffolk county lawmaker. Democrats believe Boyle is vulnerable and have nominated former Assemblymember Christine Pellegrino to challenge him. 

In District 51 in Central New York, Republican State Senator James Seward is retiring after 34 years in office. Republican Peter Oberacker, member of the Otsego County Board of Representatives, is seeking to replace him and is being challenged by Democrat Jim Barber, a farmer.  

In District 61, yet another retirement, of Republican State Senator Ranzenhofer, has buoyed Democratic hopes. Democratic candidate Jacqualine Berger, an Amherst Town Council member, is vying for the seat against Republican Erie County legislator Ed Rath. 

Highly Competitive Seats and Republican Optimism

Democrats find themselves defending several seats, some of which they very narrowly won in 2018 when they regained control of the State Senate.

In District 3 on Long Island, incumbent first-term Democratic State Senator Monica Martinez is being challenged by Republican Alexis Weik, the Islip town receiver of taxes.

In District 40, which includes parts of Westchester, Dutchess, and Putnam counties, incumbent Democratic State Senator Pete Harckham, who was first elected by a narrow margin in 2018, faces a competitive challenge from Rob Astorino, the former Westchester County Executive who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2014 and lost his reelection bid in 2017 to then-State Senator George Latimer, now the county executive.

A first-term Democrat is also trying to hold onto a competitive seat in District 6 on Long Island, where incumbent State Senator Kevin Thomas is being challenged by Republican Dennis Dunne, a Hempstead Town Council member; in District 22 in Brooklyn, where Senator Andrew Gounardes is facing Republican Vito Bruno, in a district that is more moderate than other parts of the city; and in District 42, in the Hudson Valley and Catskills, where Senator Jen Metzger is defending her seat against Republican challenger Mike Martucci, a school bus business owner.  

In District 5 on Long Island, Democrat Jim Gaughran is defending his seat against Republican challenger Edmund Smyth, a Council member from Huntington, and Green Party candidate Barbara Wagner. In District 39, Democratic State Senator James Skoufis, who was previously a member of the Assembly, is serving his first term as well. He is being challenged by Republican Steve Brescia, who has been a legislator in Orange County for more than two decades.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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