Rare openings in the State Senate's Republican conference have intensified one of New York's most far-reaching political questions: Will Democrats, who have a nearly 2-to-1 voter edge and more Democratic senators than Republicans, control the State Senate?
That question hinges on Long Island, where two of the three potential openings so far could be fought over this year.
"Republicans, Democrats, the insurgents, are all going to see this as an incredibly important election," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies.
"It's a critical moment in terms of Senate control," agreed Robert Bellafiore, political commentator and former aide to Republican Gov. George Pataki. "Democrats have increased their numbers in areas that for decades were safely Republican."
The new openings compound the Republicans' task of maintaining their decades-long control of the chamber, which is the GOP's last statewide bastion of power in New York politics.
The Republicans' narrow majority is now dependent on a coalition that includes a conservative Democrat and the four-member Independent Democratic Conference. They give 29 Republicans the edge needed to garner more than the 32 votes necessary to control the chamber, despite 32 enrolled Democrats in Senate seats, with another reliably Democratic seat temporarily vacant.
Now, that balance is threatened. On Dec. 31, veteran Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick) retired unexpectedly. On Thursday, Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) kicked off his congressional campaign and is expected to depart at the end of the year.
And on Friday, Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson), who has been considering a run for Putnam County executive, said he will decide his political future after the state budget is approved around April 1.
Those openings help create opportunities for the Independent Democratic Conference to run candidates to increase its influence in the coalition and for the traditional Democratic conference to unify and take the majority, with or without the independents.
Cuomo tops ticket
Democrats like their chances this year, with popular Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at the top of the ticket and Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York City Hall energizing Democrats and liberals.
"What you are seeing really should be sending shock waves to anyone watching the Senate," said Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), deputy leader and chairman of the state Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
"To have two popular Republican senators walk out the door in one of the most competitive years . . . it seems like anyone with a future sees no future with Senate Republicans," Gianaris said.
Senate Republicans have heard that before.
"The last thing Long Island taxpayers want to do is hand control of the Senate over to the same New York City Democrats who enacted the MTA payroll tax, took away the STAR rebate checks and shifted important school aid to New York City at Long Island's expense," said Senate Republican spokesman Scott Reif. "The simple truth is no one fights harder for Long Island than Sen. [Dean] Skelos and the Senate Republicans, and as a result we're going to hold all nine seats in November."
GOP, governor allies
Republicans have maintained at least a share of the Senate majority through three Democratic governors and are close allies with Cuomo. Cuomo had approved the Senate election districts drawn by Republicans for the next 10 years in a process that traditionally protects the majority party.
Yet each year Democrats gain. "You can't gerrymander your way out of it anymore," said Professor Doug Muzzio of Baruch College's School of Public Affairs. "Republicans are unlikely to hold on, but again, it all depends on the individual races."
And it also depends in part on Cuomo. He's running for re-election this year and there is speculation that he may seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.
"There's real pressure on Cuomo to pivot back to the Democrats to come home on the question of Senate control," said Richard Brodsky, an adjunct assistant professor at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, and a former Democratic assemblyman.
Cuomo needs the Independent Democratic Conference this legislative session "to push his tax cuts, something regular Dems don't like. He'll then pivot and try to broker a Democratic reconciliation, or push for the regular Dems in primary elections," Brodsky said.
IDC: Coalition works
The Independent Democratic Conference said it doesn't plan to leave Republicans.
"This coalition has proved we can govern in a bipartisan fashion," said Senate co-leader Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx), ticking off the wins: raising the minimum wage, passing the nation's toughest gun control law, and helping small business. "The list goes on and on."
But the traditional Democrats under new leadership argue that far more could have been done with a Democratic majority, including an ethics package Cuomo still seeks, public financing of campaigns and a women's rights agenda with late-term abortion protections.
Personal friction also divides the Democratic conferences.
The independent conference insulted then broke from the Democrats in 2010 after a two-year Democratic majority mired in political scandal, gridlock with Republicans and an embarrassing coup.
After Democrats gained control of the chamber in 2008, three insurgents flipped to the Republican side, giving it control again. The dissidents eventually extracted lucrative leadership posts from the Democratic leadership at the time to return to the conference. But the damage was done. The two-year Democratic majority was one of Albany's most embarrassing political terms, which gave Republicans fodder to reclaim the majority in 2010.
"The only way the IDC goes back is if they no longer have the ability to form a majority with Republicans," Levy said. "There are enough open seats around the state to make that a possibility, and Long Island is the place where that question could very well be resolved."