State Senate: Not your usual partisan race

A file photo of State Sen. Jack Martins

A file photo of State Sen. Jack Martins speaking at an event in Westbury. (Nov. 2, 2010) (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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Anyone who believes that all the players in a major political party unite to mount the strongest effort in every election should consider this year's State Senate races on Long Island.

True, Democratic organizations in Nassau and Suffolk counties have, finally, issued names of challengers to Long Island's rookie Republican senators, Jack Martins and Lee Zeldin, who unseated Democrats in 2010. Strategically, these are obvious ballot slots to fill: First-term incumbents are traditionally considered most vulnerable at re-election.

But from the outset, the Democratic challengers -- Dan Ross of Manhasset and Frank Genco of East Islip -- are rated underdogs by both sides. They're starting their uphill quests on the eve of the process by which they must collect petition signatures beginning Tuesday.

The Senate Republicans hold all the nine seats east of Queens, a key to their tight majority. With no turf left here to defend, the Senate's Democratic campaign committee does seem to have four local races targeted. All will be heavy lifts.

These are in the 7th District, with Ross against Martins; the 1st District, with Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) against either Bridget Fleming or Jennifer Maertz; the 6th District, with Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) facing Democrat Ryan Cronin, and the 4th District, where Sen. Owen Johnson (R-West Babylon) is expected to face Suffolk Legis. Rick Montano (D-Central Islip).

Despite a presidential race presumed to lift Democratic turnout, the forces of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) hold several advantages. They are ahead in fundraising. Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sounds no trumpet for their ouster. Several GOP incumbents volunteer the high-polling governor's name to say they've worked well with him on key issues. New district lines were crafted, as always, by the majority party, to take maximum advantage of current demographics.

Also, internal strains are evident within the Democratic conference. Four of its senators formed their own caucus after the party's single term in the majority ended last year. And, win or lose, nobody within the New York City-dominated conference seems sure who would lead them next year.

Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer said Thursday that he's told Senate Democratic leaders "they didn't demonstrate in the past they knew how to lead." An unusual statement for a chairman of the same party? "It's nothing I've done," Schaffer noted. "The last time they were in charge, it was a disaster."

In the 1st District, contender Maertz brings up the Metropolitan Transportation Authority payroll tax imposed during the Democratic majority as something she'd have bucked the leadership to vote against.

"I'm going to stand up for Long Island, even if that means having to win a primary," she said this week.

Meanwhile Fleming, a Southampton Town board member, is favored by the Senate Democratic committee. The county committee is expected to carry petitions for both.

"Both are good," Schaffer said. "I'm not taking a position" in their potential primary.

But Schaffer has long made it clear he doesn't support Montano against Johnson, while the Albany-based committee does.

Sometimes what's been considered an easy re-election race unexpectedly turns close. But at this moment, in this area, it seems that only a fluke, or massive misstep, could dislodge the Republicans from the Senate, the GOP's sole elected state power base.