David J. Valesky

April 17, 2014

Sixty-three seats. Three conferences. Six toss-ups. Who wins?


George Amedore had won.

In the battle for the 46th state Senate District, the photogenic and well funded assemblyman had fended off a spirited attack from Cecilia Tkacyzk, an unknown Democrat from rural Duanesburg who showed up late and with little money. The upstate district, which stretches from rural Montgomery County down the western banks of the Hudson and along back roads snaking through sleepy villages and towns, was tailor-made for Amedore by the Republican Senate majority in the last round of redistricting. But the 2012 campaign her turned the sleepy district into a battlefield, amid the bloody, bare-knuckle fight for control of the prized seat.

On Election Day Amedore, the Republican nominee, held a razor-thin margin of 139 votes. By the end of the month, after additional ballots were counted, his lead grew to around 700. Then in mid-December, following the opening of roughly 2,500 absentee and affidavit ballots, a state Supreme Court judge decided the fate of the district: Amedore was certified the winner by 37 votes. Although Tkacyzk refused to concede, the former assemblyman took the oath of office and readied himself to join the Senate. A legal challenge from Tkacyzk ensued, but Republicans held fast to the seat.

However, in mid-January, an appellate court authorized the vote count to resume, and as a small number of outstanding ballots were opened, Amedore’s minute lead vanished. Ultimately it was Tkacyzk who was proclaimed the winner, by a mere 18 votes, and Democrats across the state rejoiced in stealing a critical victory from the GOP. The party had picked up three other Republican seats, giving it the 32 seats mathematically needed to regain control of the 63-seat chamber, but there was more to the equation. A newly formed coalition between the Republicans and a cohort of breakaway Democrats, which dubbed itself the Independent Democratic Conference, upended the numerical majority. While the Democrats had won the war. Instead they would have to endure another two years in the minority, anxiously waiting until 2014 for another chance to tip the balance of power in their favor.

 As uphill a battle 2012 was for the Senate Democrats, 2014 will be even steeper.

The 29 current Republican senators share control of the upper house thanks to the five rogue IDC members who caucus with them. Another Democrat, who is unaffiliated with the IDC— Simcha Felder of Brooklyn—also caucuses with the Republicans, giving the coalition a 35-member voting majority.

The arithmetic gets more complicated when Sens. Malcolm Smith and John Sampson are added to the equation. While technically Democrats who vote with the minority conference, both men are under indictment. The Democrats booted Sampson, and Smith was dropped by the IDC, which he had briefly joined, leaving them essentially in the wilderness. Each major party has also lost one member to resignation: Eric Adams, a Democrat, gave up his seat after being elected Brooklyn borough president, and Charles Fuschillo, a Long Island Republican, stepped down at the end of 2013 to head the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Unless Gov. Andrew Cuomo changes his mind and calls for special elections—a move that appears virtually out of the question at this point—those vacancies will remain unfilled until the fall election.

As a result, at the moment the number of Senate Democrats comes out to 24—26 including Sampson and Smith, and 27 assuming a Democrat wins Adams’ former seat, which is all but certain to occur given the Democrats practically insurmountable registration advantage in the district. Thus, to get to the 32 seats needed for a majority, Democrats need a net gain of five seats, provided none of the IDC’s members returns to the fold. A number of experts say the Democrats will have a hard time adding even three or four seats, which would leave them with no more than 31 in total—although one insider suggested that Felder would consider rejoining their conference if they were in position to retake the majority.

On the other side of the aisle, some Albany politicos project that Republicans could pick up two or three seats, swelling the majority coalition to as many as 38 members, assuming Felder and the IDC stay on board. Senate Democrats have trumpeted their success in erasing the debt from their campaign account, which wound up deep in the red after the 2012 election cycle, but broader trends—including the fact that there is no presidential race this year, which should decrease turnout among Democratic voters— suggest better odds for the GOP. And with Democrats likely at this point to retain their hold on all three statewide offices—governor, attorney general, comptroller—as well as the majority in the Assembly, the Republican Party is certain to fight tooth and nail to preserve control over the Senate— their last bastion of statewide influence.

“For the Republicans this race is existential. They’re in a fight for their lives. They can’t afford to lose anything,” said Larry Levy, the dean of Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies. “That adds a level of energy and effort on the Republican side that you may not see on the Democrats’ side. Even if they pick up seats, there is still no guarantee that they will control the house on the possibility that they would lose the Independent Caucus to the Democrats.”

The IDC, which funded Democratic primary challengers in 2012 and has openly discussed taking on incumbent Democrats again, further complicates the landscape. The regular Democrats, under attack from both the Republicans and the IDC, are going on the offensive too: Senate IDC Leader Jeff Klein could face a primary challenge from Oliver Koppell, the former state attorney general, assemblyman and New York City councilman. There have also been rumors that IDC senators David Valesky and Tony Avella could have primaries. The IDC is not expected to back challengers against their Republican coalition partners, but they too could find themselves marginalized if the Republicans win an outright majority and no longer need to share power with them.

“You’re going to have Republicans trying to pick up Democratic seats. You may have the IDC trying to, in primaries, pick up Democratic seats. And you have the regular Democrats who want to win Republican seats or IDC seats. So in a sense you have a three-way competition this year,” said Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg. “The key for Jeff Klein and the IDC members is to ensure that neither the regular Democrats nor the Republicans get to 32 seats, and therefore they need Jeff Klein and the IDC. It makes for a very interesting dynamic.”

 At the center of the Republicans’ power base in the state Senate is the so-called Long Island Nine. Republicans currently hold all nine of the island’s seats, and they vote together as a unified bloc. State Sen. Dean Skelos, the leader of the Senate Republicans, hails from Nassau County—one of the island’s two counties, along with Suffolk— and his party has catered to local demands on education, transportation and taxes. Demographic shifts—more immigrants and minorities, and a growing Democratic enrollment— have made Long Island an increasingly competitive landscape, but the Republicans have held on. Democrats aggressively targeted Republican senators like Kemp Hannon and Jack Martins in 2012, through they failed to pick up any seats.

Then, at the end of 2013, with the resignation of Fuschillo, the nine became eight. Shortly thereafter that number fell to seven when state Sen. Lee Zeldin announced a run for Congress. The seat formerly held by Fuschillo may represent the best opportunity for a Democratic pickup not only on Long Island but statewide. David Denenberg, the early favorite to be the Democrat’s nominee, has the on-paper advantage over the Republican’s candidate Michael Venditto because of his party’s 52 percent to 48 percent voter registration advantage in the district. Both Denenberg and Venditto are county legislators, though for Town of Oyster Bay residents the name Venditto bolsters his case. Venditto’s father, John, is the town’s longtime supervisor, which could persuade some voters to support him and motivate the local Republican machine to rally behind his candidacy.

Zeldin’s seat is technically open, but he could re-emerge as a Senate candidate if he fails to defeat lawyer George Demos in the Republican primary to challenge Rep. Tim Bishop. If Zeldin ends up seeking reelection, he would have a considerable advantage as an incumbent. If he moves on, the Republican vying to replace him could benefit from having Zeldin at the top of the ticket. Democrat Adrienne Esposito, who has made a name for herself as an environmental activist, has filed to run, while the GOP is putting its weight behind Islip Town Councilman Anthony Senft, a registered Conservative. If nothing else, Senft will have history on his side: Brian Foley—Zeldin’s predecessor—is the only Democratic state senator from Suffolk county since 1902.

Republicans will have to play defense elsewhere in the state, too, especially in Erie County, where state Sen. Mark Grisanti has managed to stay in office despite attacks from the right and the left. In a three-way race during the last election cycle, Grisanti won with 50.1 percent of the vote. Several Republicans, including 2012 rival Kevin Stocker, are looking to run, while Laura Palisano Hackathorn, a Hamburg village trustee, has met with Senate Democrats about a bid. Grisanti recently picked up the Independence Party’s backing, but is unlikely to win the Conservative Party line, which could be pivotal this fall.

“I think that’s a vulnerable seat,” said Mike Long, the head of the state Conservative Party. “I think that’s going to be a very tough election. He’s had a couple bad votes. He not only voted for same-sex marriage but he voted up there in that neck of the woods for the SAFE Act. For his race, some of those issues are going to be discussed up there.”

 When New York passed a landmark same-sex marriage law in 2011, Grisanti was one of four Republican senators to cross the aisle and vote in favor of the legislation. Another senator, Roy McDonald, was knocked out by a fellow Republican, Kathy Marchione, in 2012. Democratic newcomers replaced the other two GOP senators who voted “yes”—Hudson Valley’s Stephen Saland and James Alesi of Rochester—and Republicans now see those two seats as prime targets for pick-ups in 2014, along with Tkaczyk’s seat, which Amedore is expected to make another bid for this fall.

In what was Saland’s district, Terry Gipson slipped into office in 2012 with less than 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race against Saland and the Conservative Party’s Neil DiCarlo, who was unhappy with Saland’s same-sex marriage vote. This year Robert Rolison, the chair of the Dutchess County Legislature, already has the support of local Republican county committees, although he will have to beat at least two other Republicans in a primary.

In another remarkable pickup for Democrats in 2012, Ted O’Brien won Alesi’s seat by beating former Republican assemblyman Sean Hanna with just 52 percent of the vote. This year Republicans say they are excited about the candidacy of Richard Funke, a popular retired television newscaster in Rochester who recently entered the race. Add to these promising challenges the expected candidacy of Amedore and Republicans are in a strong position this cycle to expand their conference.

“Should George Amedore be the candidate, if he decides to run, he will win that seat,” said John McArdle, a former Senate Republican spokesman. “They will win in Rochester, and as long as the Republicans and Conservatives and independents are united in the Hudson Valley, they will pick up that seat. I believe they will hold any of the open seats that are there now, at least with Fuschillo’s seat—and assuming Lee Zeldin is a congressional candidate, they will hold that seat as well.”

Across the aisle, Democrats will have the additional test of trying to fortify some of their incumbents against rivals from within their own party, too. In Buffalo, Sen. Tim Kennedy faces a primary challenge from a candidate the IDC is pushing hard to back. Erie County Legislature Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant, who lost to Kennedy by just 156 votes in the 2012 Democratic Primary, is likely to take him on again, and she has already met with Klein about getting the IDC’s support. Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is another potential IDC target, with Westchester County Legislator Virginia Perez reportedly eyeing a challenge.

The Senate Democrat regulars, who are quick to dismiss the potential threat to Stewart-Cousins as toothless, are targeting an IDC member of their own: Co-Majority Leader Klein. Oliver Koppell has not officially announced his candidacy, but he has repeatedly blasted the IDC and Klein over issues like the failure of the state Senate to pass the DREAM Act, a top priority for immigrant groups. Operatives seem keen on backing Koppell if he declares, though some observers doubt that he can defeat Klein. Nonetheless, a close race could rattle the IDC, especially if the conference suffers a loss elsewhere. IDC insiders have repeatedly called Koppell a nonthreat, and they seem ready to focus attention elsewhere to challenge Democrats.

 The common wisdom about the biennial battle for the State Senate is that Republicans will have the upper hand this time around. In 2012 large turnout for the presidential race boosted Democratic candidates across the state, giving them a fleeting majority. The same dynamic was at play in 2008, when Democrats briefly won control of the Senate. In 2010, however, the Republicans recovered and took back the chamber. If this pattern holds, Republicans could extend their power—possibly even winning enough seats to no longer need to share power with the IDC.

“Historically, gubernatorial election years tend to be better for Republicans, while presidential election years tend to be better for Democrats—and that’s just a reflection of turnout,” Greenberg noted. “While the overall statewide enrollment is 2–1 D, in presidential election years the turnout tends to be 2–1 or actually a little bit better than 2–1 D, whereas in gubernatorial years the statewide turnout tends to be several points below 2–1. Republicans close the gap a little bit. And in marginal districts or tightly contested districts, that can make a big difference.”

While President Obama is not on the ballot this cycle, he could still be a factor in some races. Distaste for Obamacare could motivate Republicans to go to the polls in greater number to vote for GOP candidates down the ballot, although the Affordable Care Act’s implementation has gone relatively smoothly in New York. After six years with Obama in the White House, the president’s declining popularity and Democratic fatigue could also be an Election Day boost for Republicans.

“The other factor which is beyond the control of all of these candidates is: What’s the mood?” said John Faso, a former Republican nominee for governor. “What are the voters feeling? Are they unhappy with Obama? Do they like the trend in the state and the nation? That’s going to influence a lot of people in terms of whether they decide to come out or not.”

While national issues and voter trends likely will play a major role in determining congressional races around the state, those contests could in turn have a tangible effect on the outcome of the Senate fights. Democratic strategist Bruce Gyory pointed to the last election cycle, when Rep. Louise Slaughter held her seat by 14 points over challenger Maggie Brooks. That victory, he said, helped Ted O’Brien squeak past Republican challenger Sean Hanna 52–48.

The coattail effects are not limited to congressional candidates and federal politics. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s race against Rob Astorino, the likely Republican nominee, could have an impact as well. Despite being the state’s top elected Democrat, Cuomo has a track record of largely staying out of Senate races, especially in the early going. In upstate New York the governor’s controversial gun control law, the SAFE Act, could propel conservatives to the polls looking to punish Democrats. Even if he loses to Cuomo, Astorino, who has performed well in a swing district, could potentially boost Republican Senate contenders as a credible candidate at the top of the ticket. Of course, if polls consistently show Cuomo crushing Astorino, they could dampen Republican morale and keep down turnout.

Conversely, Hofstra’s Larry Levy said local elections are essential for New York’s Republican Party to rebuild itself, and a string of regional victories in 2013 could represent “a realistic glimmer of hope for Republicans in statewide races.” On Long Island, Nassau County reelected Republican county executive Ed Mangano, despite the Democrats’ voter registration advantage. In Westchester County Astorino overcame a 2-to-1 Democratic majority to keep his hold on the county executive’s seat. Elsewhere, Republicans took control of the Erie County Legislature and won the mayor’s office in Binghamton with Richard David.

While the state’s overwhelming majority of Democrats always poses a daunting challenge to the GOP, Republicans both publicly and privately express optimism about their prospects of holding the Senate in 2014.

“The key to electoral success is recruiting excellent candidates, and very shortly our contenders will be announced. These community leaders have accomplished records of professional achievements and compassionate caring in their neighborhoods and regions,” wrote state Sen. Catharine Young, who heads the Senate Republicans’ re-election efforts, in a recent op-ed in City & State. “I look forward to great success in 2014.”

Another probable plus for Republicans is campaign fundraising, an area where the GOP has traditionally outmatched their opponents. “Our fundraising is going extremely well, and we have a lot of support across the state,” Young said. “I expect we’ll have the resources we need to be victorious.”

But state Sen. Michael Gianaris, who leads the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, pushes back against the significance of the Republicans’ likely financial advantage by pointing to the last election, when Democrats picked up four seats despite being roughly $1.78 million in debt.

 As predictive as past races can be, and as important as it is to understand the current dynamics at play, elections always pose the possibility of surprise.

Tkacyzk’s razor-thin victory was perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2012 election, particularly given her late entry into the race. Shockers go back further, too. In 2004 Stewart-Cousins lost by just 18 votes to incumbent Nick Spano, then came back in 2006 to defeat him. In 2008 Democrat Brian Foley took Caesar Trunzo’s Long Island seat. In 2007 when Michael Balboni left the Senate to become deputy secretary for public safety under Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Democrat Craig Johnson won over Republican Maureen O’Connell. In 2010 Grisanti beat Democratic Sen. Antoine Thompson in a stunning upset.

“If surprises were the norm in the last five election cycles,” Gyory said, “why should we be shocked if there are surprises this year?”

For Gianaris and the Democrats, a few surprises that go their way could make their long-shot bid to reclaim the majority successful. Still, Gianaris sounded cautious when asked what were the Democrats’ odds of taking over, focusing instead on smaller gains that could convince the IDC to rejoin the larger Democratic Conference.

“We will move in a positive direction,” Gianaris said. “How many? I don’t know. But we expect to have more seats after Election Day than we have today.”

“If we’re making progress, I think everyone who follows state government knows that in 2016 this is all over,” he continued. “That will be a presidential year with a very strong top of the ticket, whoever that might be. We’ll have a full two-year cycle of being debt-free, so we’ll have several million more dollars in 2016 than we have this year.”

For Levy, the 2016 strategy makes the most sense because 2014 stands be a good year for Senate Republicans.

“That’s really the only strategy they have,” he said. “Look at what Republicans have going for them: a Democratic governor who has shown no interest in promoting the Democratic caucus; a national dynamic that is now trending against Democrats at every level; and a funding and organizational advantage over their opponents. That’s not a scenario for a party to make big gains. They basically need to focus on places where they can pick up a seat or two and make as much progress as they can until they have another opportunity.”