Suffolk Republican chairman John Jay LaValle says he sees a GOP comeback this year.
But if Republicans make gains, it will largely be because the county legislature's Democratic caucus, which has a 13-5 majority, has few GOP targets left to pick off.
LaValle says he expects GOP gains because of dissatisfaction among Democrats over national issues such as the IRS scandal, and concern among local taxpayers that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has failed to solve the county's $250 million deficit.
"His administration has been a rudderless ship," LaValle said. "He doesn't seem to have a plan to save Suffolk County."
Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman, said Bellone has successfully lobbied Albany on things past officials only talked about, like video slot machines and a local traffic court, that are expected to bring in new revenues. "Democrats are getting things done by paying attention to government while Republicans are playing politics," Schaffer said.
This year's battle for control of the county legislature comes at a turning point. Ailing Presiding Officer William Lindsay is term-limited after a record eight years at the helm. Bellone critics say that behind the scenes, the county executive is looking to make the legislature more malleable by seeking to influence legislative appointments, taking on dissident Democrat Rick Montano through surrogates while campaigning with new and freshmen Democrats seeking victories.
Republicans and Democrats point to five key battlegrounds.
In the 6th District, Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who won in a 2011 upset, is facing a strong challenge from Republican Jennifer Juengst, a community leader, in the heavily GOP district. GOP officials say Juengst has strong backing from environmental activists. Anker is touting her support for a police hotline system for local schools in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., shooting tragedy,
The next tightest is the 2nd District race between Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) and Christopher Nuzzi, a term-limited GOP Southampton Town board member who grew up in East Hampton. Schneiderman pushed for County Road 39 improvements, pressed for more bus services, and gotten homeless sex offender trailers out of Westhampton. But GOP critics say that only months ago, Schneiderman, who is term-limited after 2015, was looking to exit to run for East Hampton supervisor.
In Huntington, freshman Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), a pediatric surgeon, faces Robert Conte, the brother of the late GOP Assemb. James Conte. Backers say Spencer has been a crucial advocate on key health care issues, but opponents say he could be hurt by a GOP win in the heated town supervisor race.
In the open 8th District seat, Lindsay's son, William, is looking to succeed his father. He faces Republican Anthony Musumeci, who is making his second run for the seat. Democrats note the elder Lindsay built up good will and Democrats' 30-year hold on the seat. Republicans see Musumeci as a product of the revitalized Islip GOP who could benefit from a backlash against Democrats for trying to keep the seat in the Lindsay family.
In the 7th District, freshman Democrat Legis. Rob Calarco, who led an effort to preserve the former Patchogue village library, faces Republican attorney John Halverson, who has lifelong local ties.
LaValle said he hopes Republicans can pick up three of the five seats -- enough to deadlock or win control of the legislature should Montano survive or maverick Legis. Kate Browning's (WFP-Shirley) strained relations with Bellone deteriorate further and they are persuaded to join a GOP coalition.
"I've worked across the aisle in the past," Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said. "I'd absolutely consider a coalition to restore good government in Suffolk."
Schaffer said he sees a shot for Democratic elder lawyer Elaine Turley to pick up the open Smithtown seat, where three Republicans are battling to succeed term-limited GOP Legis. Lynne Nowick, amid a heated GOP supervisor primary.
Schaffer said he doubted LaValle can win control of the legislature -- even with a coalition.
"Just ask how well it worked out the last time he tried it," Schaffer, referring to LaValle's and former GOP County Executive Steve Levy's ill-fated 2011 coup to install ally Legis. Louis D'Amaro as presiding officer.