Voter turnout is likely to be the key to success -- and the key challenge -- for Westchester County Democrats seeking to unseat Republican County Executive Rob Astorino in 2013, say political strategists, politicians and others.
At issue: whether Democrats can harness their overwhelming numerical superiority among registered county voters or let infighting, off-year election blues or Astorino's likability dampen their game in November 2013.
Astorino has not officially announced his intention to run, but he's expected to do so. When he announces, he'll kick off what arguably will be the biggest political battle in the Hudson Valley in 2013. Astorino is often discussed as a potential Republican gubernatorial candidate, but he likely needs to win re-election if he hopes to run for higher office in Albany.
Out of about 565,000 voters in Westchester County, around 266,000 are Democrats, according to county election officials. About 136,000 are Republican. Democrats outnumber GOP voters by a ratio of almost 2 to 1.
But that advantage didn't help Democrats in 2009, when Astorino ran on a platform of restraining taxes and cutting government spending while, on a national level, Tea Party Republicans were thriving with a similar message.
In 2009, Astorino, in a huge upset, garnered 93,400 votes to two-term Democratic incumbent Andy Spano's 70,700.
Westchester County Democratic leader Reginald Lafayette argued that Spano lost in 2009 because of a drop-off in Democratic voting rather than a surge in support for Astorino.
In the 2012 election, Lafayette said, about 240,000 Democrats turned out to vote for President Barack Obama. Only about 140,000 voted for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The numbers show that when they want to vote, Westchester Democrats sweep aside their Republican rivals, he said.
"You're feeling the strength of the turnout," Lafayette said.
Legis. Jim Maisano (R-New Rochelle) partially agreed with Lafayette. Astorino's 2009 victory stemmed from excitement among Republicans seeking to kick out Spano, whom they viewed as fiscally irresponsible, Maisano said. Because Republicans' criticism of Spano was valid, Democrats couldn't muster enthusiasm at the polls, he said.
"In New Rochelle, when Astorino won, only 23 percent of registered Democrats showed up, but 33 percent of register Republicans showed up," Maisano said.
If Democrats could persuade a portion of those who usually vote only in presidential elections to participate in the November 2013 election, they can defeat Astorino, Lafayette and Maisano said.
Yet Democrats might already be undermining their efforts to excite their base.
At least three Democrats have signaled their intention to run for county executive in 2013: Legis. Bill Ryan (D-White Plains) and New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson officially have announced their candidacies.
Board of Legislators chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers) has not announced his bid. After two Democrats broke from Jenkins earlier in December and made a compromise deal with Astorino over the county's $1.7 billion budget for 2013, party insiders are questioning whether Jenkins should secure the party's nomination.
DRAIN ON RESOURCES?
"The demographics are in the Democrats' favor," said Mike Edelman, an independent political strategist who mostly works with Republicans. "But what they're overlooking is that they might have a three-way primary that might drain their resources."
Astorino is also young and well-liked, Edelman said, an image that has been strengthened by his performance during Hurricane Sandy and after he passed a bipartisan budget.
"He conducts himself in a noncontentious way," Edelman said. "He doesn't yell and bang tables. He's affable."
Lafayette agreed. But Astorino laid off 100 workers in his 2013 budget, just one example of how he has methodically cut county government to the bone, he said. It's not clear Astorino's likability will persuade voters to put him back into office, considering he might cut public services even further.
"He's a nice guy," Lafayette said. "But ... people vote based on agreeing with your policies, not your likability. They vote on who how you are running government. You can be loved but not get back in office."