Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, seen at his Hauppauge office...

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, seen at his Hauppauge office on Sept. 20, 2013. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Discussions about next year's Suffolk County executive race, according to county Republican chairman John Jay LaValle, began at about midnight on election night.

The talks came hours after sweeping GOP victories in Congress, the State Senate and the county comptroller race, in which Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) won an upset.

"We're already underway," said LaValle, noting the victories have spurred "a tremendous amount of interest." LaValle wants to pick a candidate by early next year. "We cannot continue to have Steve Bellone's one-shot budgets full of smoke and mirrors," he said.

But LaValle declined to name a single potential challenger to Bellone. "The fact that he could not name one candidate speaks volumes," said Richard Schaffer, Suffolk Democratic chairman.

Bellone surprised everyone last year by announcing his re-election bid two years early. More inexplicably, he put out his first campaign mailing last month, when letter boxes already were crammed with campaign pieces from this year's candidates. But lately, Bellone has dropped 50 pounds and raised his public profile.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said Bellone has a strong record, cutting the county payroll by 1,100 positions, saving $100 million a year; winning voter approval for merging the treasurer's and comptroller's offices; and closing the county nursing home.

"It shows Bellone has got Suffolk heading in the right direction," Schneider said. Politically, Bellone also is formidable with $936,000 in the bank and strong police union backing.

Topping any GOP list, experts say, are state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine.

Flanagan is a proven vote-getter in a district spanning Huntington, Smithtown and Brookhaven. But Flanagan, who passed on the 2011 county executive race, is key to the new GOP Senate majority to be headed by state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

Flanagan did not return calls last week, but one high-level Republican source said the lawmaker is "seriously considering" a run. "He has statewide aspirations and it's better to jump off from a county than just a Senate district," the source said. "And you never know what can happen in 2016," alluding to the possible fate of a GOP Senate majority in a presidential year with higher Democratic turnouts.

Flanagan would not have to give up his seat to run, and if he wins, GOP officials say Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) could keep the seat in GOP hands.

Romaine, head of Suffolk's largest town, is well-versed as a former county lawmaker and unafraid of battles. But, he says, "I have no interest in the race and I'm not contemplating running for county executive."

That's because Romaine would have to gamble on winning because the supervisor's job is also up next year. In the strange alchemy of Brookhaven GOP politics, party officials prefer to keep a firm hold on the town and its 1,000 jobs -- rather than share patronage jobs with nine other GOP town committees if Romaine became county executive.

A second tier of contenders includes Fitzpatrick, Albany's most conservative lawmaker, who like Kennedy wins by large margins in his Smithtown base. More important, Fitzpatrick can run without risking his Assembly seat. Others cite two-term Islip Town Board member Trish Bergin Weichbrodt, a former TV newswoman. Treasurer Angie Carpenter, Bellone's GOP opponent in 2011, said Bergin would bring that "unique women's perspective" to the contest.Paul Sabatino, former chief deputy county executive, said Republicans should not waste their momentum, and that this election proved money is not decisive.

"Republicans have been losing county races for so long -- especially with all the cross-endorsements -- they have forgotten what it's like to run competitive [countywide] races," Sabatino said. "But when the big mo kicks in, all the sunshine patriots come out . . . and join the parade."

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