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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Skelos seeks to assure GOP's majority

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos during a press

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos during a press conference where Councilman Eric Ulrich, right, got the endorsement of Plumbers Local No.1 and Steamfitters Local 638. (July 26, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Despite its clear advantages heading into Election Day, the State Senate majority led by Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) came away with results so shaky that Skelos is left to give others verbal assurance that his majority will survive after New Year's.

Ordinarily, a winner would just let the numbers talk. But Skelos cannot do that, certainly not yet. His statewide conference currently holds 33 seats to the Democrats' 29. But by most accounts the GOP on Tuesday lost three seats to Democratic candidates. In a fourth -- the new seat that expands the Senate from 62 to 63 members on Jan. 1 -- the results, surprisingly, remain too close for anyone's comfort. And in two districts where the GOP planned to flip Democratic-held seats, the push failed.

Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), who ran his party's campaigns for the upper house, had credibly predicted the helpful effects of unusually high presidential turnout in blue-state New York -- even as Skelos talked of expanding to 35 or 36 seats, and the GOP Senate committee far out-fundraised and outspent its rival.

So this week, Gianaris declares victory -- with Democratic candidates perhaps on track to have won 32 of the 63 seats as paper-ballot counts await.

Luckily for Team Skelos, however, the picture is more complicated.

In Brooklyn, Sen.-elect Simcha Felder ran as a Democrat, one of three to oust incumbent Republicans. But Felder, representing a heavily conservative Orthodox Jewish constituency, indicated a willingness to caucus with the Republicans. Plus, there are four members in the Senate's Independent Democratic Conference, all of whom won re-election -- and have been alienated from the leadership of Sen. John Sampson (D-Brooklyn), the Senate's Democratic minority leader. Might one or more of these five dissenters help put Skelos over the top when a speaker is elected after Jan. 1? That question appears to loom in the weeks ahead.

So far, the most remarkable outcome is that Skelos got to map the districts of his house earlier this year -- yet still may need to borrow non-Republicans to retain a majority. Ordinarily, decennial redistricting would assure a newly elected majority a few years of breathing room before any unplanned political changes take place in the communities. Not this time.

For Skelos' purposes, the number of Republicans around the state has become like gasoline after Sandy -- too scarce. Even in the stronghold of Long Island, where unofficial results showed the GOP hanging on to all nine Senate seats, seven of those districts have more Democrats registered to vote than Republicans. Voters unaffiliated with any party make up the third biggest group. Following a years-long trend, enrolled Democrats in Nassau outnumber Republicans overall, and have been catching up with the GOP in Suffolk.

No wonder so many Republican senators campaigned as if they were ticket-mates of high-polling Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. In 2008, during New York's last Obama wave, the Republicans fell out of the Senate majority for the first time in four decades. Yet in their single chaotic, widely panned term in charge, the Democrats briefly lost control when Skelos persuaded two of them to join his conference. In 2010, the Republicans returned, after a few very close races, holding 32 seats, the minimum needed for a majority.

A need to borrow support again from outside the ranks of the GOP would give Skelos a task that has to be especially unenviable in a party whose leading voices so often decry living beyond one's means.

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