Until two weeks ago, experts on both sides of the aisle considered the Suffolk Legislature's 14th District a slam-dunk seat for Democrats this November.
But the impending exit of Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley to a state parks job has made the Lindenhurst-based open seat an unexpected key battleground among a half-dozen races where the GOP hopes to cut or overtake the Democratic legislative caucus' 13-5 majority.
After last-minute maneuvering on both sides, Republicans have put forward Lindenhurst Deputy Mayor Kevin McCaffrey, 58, a village trustee for 23 years. He also is president of 2,800-member Teamster Local 707, which represents truckers in the metropolitan area.
Democrats have replaced Horsley with Tom Dolan, 51, whose late father, Frank Dolan, once was town party chairman. Dolan, a financial planner from Lindenhurst, has never run for office but is vice president of the local youth football and cheerleading program that involves 500 youngsters.
What also raises the contest's profile is that it is playing out in the heart of the Democrats' Babylon power base; both County Executive Steve Bellone and Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer reside in the 14th. It's been a quarter-century since the GOP has won any legislative seat in Babylon. The door first shut in 1987 when Richard Schaffer, now town supervisor and also the county Democratic chairman, at age 23 upset GOP Legis. Gerard Glass.
"It's like going into Yankee Stadium and trying to beat the '27 Yankees," said Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who mainly works for Republicans. "But he's [McCaffrey] got a good fighting shot, and the fact you can even say that is extraordinarily significant."
What gives Republicans hope is that McCaffrey is a proven vote-getter with a solid political base. Conservative Party officials who originally endorsed Horsley have shifted to McCaffrey.
"They have a candidate that wants to start building a record," Tony Pancella, Babylon Republican chairman, said of Dolan. "We have a candidate who already has a proven record."
The district tilts Republican by 1,600 registered voters. Pancella also noted that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried the district 52-48 last year.
Democrats are touting Dolan as a Bellone booster. "I'm a big Steve Bellone fan," Dolan said. "I want to help him get a more effective government and keep costs down."
Schaffer said the campaign will promote Dolan as part of the Bellone team, while trying to paint legislative Republicans as "obstructionist and trying to block all the things Steve Bellone is trying to do for the taxpayers."
Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle countered that Democrats "tried to pull the wool over voters' eyes" by switching candidates at the last minute.
Democrats mailed in Horsley's declination of candidacy so that it would arrive after the deadline and bar Republicans from putting up a more competitive candidate. But the GOP countered by moving their original candidate, OTB worker William Barci, into the race for town clerk and installed McCaffrey as their 14th District candidate.
McCaffrey has declined to attack Democrats, saying he will work with them as a legislator just as he's done in the village. But McCaffrey said his experience gives him the edge over Dolan, adding that he expects significant help from labor because he is a "pro-union Republican."
Paul Sabatino, a Republican who was a former chief deputy county executive, said a loss would give Democrats a black eye and could impact Bellone's re-election.
"Losing in your hometown where there's been little organized Republican opposition could be a huge psychological blow," Sabatino said.