Election losses exposed Nassau Democrats' weaknesses, experts say

With his wife Helene at his side, Thomas With his wife Helene at his side, Thomas Suozzi speaks to his supporters following his defeat to Ed Mangano in the race for Nassau County executive. (Nov. 5, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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Nassau County Democrats, who suffered significant losses in Tuesday's elections, need to figure out how to translate their edge in voter enrollment into success at the polls, political analysts and party officials said.

Top party officials point to an affluent fundraising base, growing voter registration rolls and improvements in their Election Day ground game.

But the party's losses in races for county executive, comptroller and county legislature exposed weaknesses in its communications strategy, voter turnout efforts and its efforts to attract candidates for every legislative district, according to strategists and current and former party leaders.

Many in the party attributed Republican County Executive Edward Mangano's 59-41 percent victory over Democrat Thomas Suozzi to the GOP's main message -- that Mangano did not raise county property taxes in his first term, while Suozzi raised them twice when he was county executive from 2002 to 2009.

The focus of Suozzi's message varied -- from county borrowing to taxes to Mangano's tea party support.

A Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll just before the election that had Mangano ahead of Suozzi by 11 percentage points also showed the Democrat with higher unfavorable ratings than Mangano -- 52 percent compared with 43 percent for Mangano.

"All campaigns are imperfect," said Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs. "Ours was fraught with issues about message."

Suozzi in his concession speech Tuesday night conceded that "we may have hit the wrong message. Their message was better and simpler to understand."

Others said the problems run deeper.

Democratic National Committee member Robert Zimmerman said the party can no longer rely on "slogans and sound bites" and must offer practical solutions to county problems such as the budget.

"We need to look beyond just the messaging," said Zimmerman, founder of Zimmerman/Edelson Inc., a Great Neck public relations firm.

"It's too simplistic to say that their ads were better and were easier to understand," he said. "We need to give serious thought to why the Republican Party now engenders more confidence with the public than Democrats."

 

Too focused on exec race

Lawrence Aaronson, who served as Nassau Democratic chairman in 2001, said the party is too concerned about the top of the ticket and has not invested the resources to remain competitive in races in the county legislature's 19 districts.

Democrats did not field candidates in five districts on Tuesday, conceding the seats to the GOP. Four candidates were knocked off the ballot after GOP court challenges, and Democrats did not run anyone against Legis. Denise Ford, a Long Beach Democrat who caucuses with Republicans.

"I question the strength of the party structure," said Aaronson, who is retired and lives in Delray Beach, Fla. "A strong get-out-the-vote [effort] is critical. Without a strong party foundation, you can't support the top of the ticket."

Some county Democrats are calling for Jacobs, an active fundraiser who recently won a seventh two-year term, to be replaced.

John Rennhack, who has run unsuccessfully for a county legislature seat based in Massapequa, a GOP stronghold, posted Wednesday a message on Facebook criticizing the party for hiring consultants from outside the county and failing to develop a strong crop of candidates.

He said Jacobs and other members of the party's executive board should resign.

"For the sake of the party, they need to step aside," Rennhack said in an interview. "I hope everyone agrees that major changes are needed."

Jacobs said he has no plans to step down. He argued that despite back-to-back county executive losses in 2009 and 2013, the party is in a strong position to rebound.

Jacobs said the party and the Suozzi campaign raised and spent more than $5 million for the county executive race and fielded a record number of volunteers, including 1,600 on the weekend before the election.

Democrats also point to the fact that they lost only one seat in the legislature, leaving them with eight seats to the Republicans' 11, following GOP redistricting that went into effect this year.

"Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated," said Democratic Party attorney Thomas Garry.

 

'Don't operate as a team'

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Registered Democrats in Nassau outnumber Republicans 363,911 to 326,266, an advantage party officials and political experts attribute to the growing number of young people, immigrants and minority voters. Democrats took the enrollment edge beginning in 2008. Despite that advantage, Mangano received 30,000 more votes than Suozzi on Tuesday.

Nassau GOP chairman Joseph Mondello said the Democrats do a poor job of coordinating the message of all their candidates, from the top of the ticket down to town board seats.

"They don't operate as a team or work for the common good," he said. "Their philosophy is 'every man for themselves.' "

Suffolk County Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer said he has helped the Nassau party better coordinate campaigns on the county, town and city levels.

Jacobs said the Nassau party also relied more on computer data in an attempt to attract 100,000 new voters who normally only vote in presidential years.

Schaffer said the strategy will take time to pay off.

"They are experiencing growing pains just as we did," Schaffer said. "But they should be ready by 2015."

In Suffolk, Democrats hold the county executive post and the majority in the county legislature.

 

Trying new strategies

Adam Haber, an East Hills businessman who lost a Democratic primary to Suozzi in September, said Democrats need to invest more time and energy in the Town of Hempstead, a Republican stronghold that was a central focus of his campaign effort, and attract new candidates for office.

"We need to open the door for new Democratic voices," said Haber, who did not receive the party's endorsement. "We can't keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results."

Party officials note their bench of rising or established officials, including District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who won a third term Tuesday after declining to run for county executive; legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) and Legis. CarriƩ Solages (D-Elmont).

"Democrats should begin grooming candidates, build up their profiles so that four or six years down the road they are ready to challenge the incumbent," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

Others say the worst thing Democrats can do is overreact to the Suozzi loss, noting the cyclical nature of politics -- the Nassau GOP lost county executive races in 2001 and 2005 -- and the influence of changing state and national issues.

"I don't place too much significance on one race," said Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based political consultant who generally works with Republicans. "The clock gets reset at zero at the end of every game."

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