Suffolk County Executive-elect Ed Romaine speaks at the Suffolk GOP election night...

Suffolk County Executive-elect Ed Romaine speaks at the Suffolk GOP election night headquarters at Stereo Garden in Patchogue. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

After two decades of Democratic control, Republicans over the past four years have leveraged wider turnout margins and successfully courted independent voters to capture Long Island's top county offices, according to new data and political experts.

The trend continued this year as the GOP turned out higher numbers than Democrats and exceeded their own numbers from previous cycles, election board data shows. On Jan. 1, the GOP will control the county executive and district attorney offices in both counties for the first time since 2001. Just two years ago, Democrats held all four offices.

Republicans won big even though there are more registered Democrats. In Nassau, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 86,000 among 981,362 registered voters. Democrats have 32,000 more voters than Republicans in Suffolk, where there are 1,046,068 registered voters.

On Nov. 7, 34.5% of Republicans across Long Island voted, compared with 26.3% of Democrats, the data shows.

The GOP's success with independents also helped erase gains Democrats worked years to secure, experts said. In Nassau, Democrats lost control of North Hempstead and Long Beach, giving Republicans control over the county's three towns and two cities.

In Nassau, 26.5% of voters are not registered with a political party. In Suffolk, it's 28.4%.

"Without a doubt, they played a role," said Dennis Rigas, who teaches political science at St. Joseph's University in Patchogue. Typically, independent voters "come out and will pretty much go with what the majority trend is for a particular issue," he added.

Democratic leaders said they tried to turn out the vote by raising millions of dollars for marquee races, paying for ads targeting likely voters and crafting moderate messages. But, they acknowledged, Republicans won independent voters by a margin of two to one, according to both parties' internal analyses. 

"That’s where you win or lose the election," said Richard Schaffer, chairman of the Suffolk Democratic Committee.

Jesse Garcia, Suffolk County Republican chairman, used a football metaphor to describe his party's get-out-the-vote efforts.

“Election Day has to be a Super Bowl. We have to roll out huge numbers' worth of door canvassers and phone calling to identify voters that are likely to vote for our candidates and policies,” Garcia said.

For years, Democratic turnout has lagged Republicans in odd-year election cycles, when county, town and city races are on the ballot, election data shows. 

In 2023, Republican turnout in Suffolk County was 35.2% compared with Democratic turnout of 27.8%. In 2019, Republican turnout was 36.7%, compared with 31% for Democrats.

In 2023 in Nassau, Republican turnout exceeded Democratic turnout 33.8% to 25.1%. In 2019, when the ballot also included the district attorney's race, 35.2% of Republicans turned out to vote, compared with 28.9% of Democrats. 

Countywide races were on the ballot in both Nassau and Suffolk in 2021, and Republican turnout exceeded Democratic turnout by about 40% to 27% in both.

Jay Jacobs, state and Nassau County Democratic chairman, said the data shows that across New York, Democrats are less likely to vote in the “off years” when federal and statewide races aren’t on the ballot. Democratic turnout in Nassau was 75% in 2020 during the presidential election, compared with 27% in 2021.

“It’s consistent statewide,” Jacobs said. “Democrats seem to be more focused on state and federal issues.” 

Joseph Cairo, chairman of the Nassau County Republican Committee, said “politics is cyclical. You’re up, you’re down. Right now, we’re on a good run. The issues are with us.”

Republicans pulled a strong vote in Great Neck during the nine-day period of early voting, Cairo said. Once a bastion of Democratic power, Great Neck is now a reliable Republican power base.

In Manhasset, an affluent Republican community where turnout in local years has lagged, the party benefited from having two local candidates on the ballot: incumbent North Hempstead Supervisor Jennifer DeSena, who defeated Democrat Jon Kaiman, and Mary Jo Collins, who won the election for town Receiver of Taxes, succeeding retiring Democrat Charles Berman.

The party also scored big numbers in Lawrence, which decades ago was a Democratic stronghold. It has a large population of Orthodox Jews, a sect that is heavily Republican-leaning.

On the Sunday before Election Day, 1,300 voted early in Lawrence — a promising sign, Cairo said. 

Jacobs defended his party's efforts across Nassau. But in looking at the results of his past two decades as county chair, he came to a blunt assessment: "We win in Nassau County only when it is in response to what I’ll refer to as an extraordinary Republican screw-up."

In both counties, the number of independent voters, known as "blanks," is growing. In 2023, there were 297,123 in Suffolk, compared with 257,038 in 2019. In Nassau, the number was 259,846 in 2023, up from 227,256 in 2019.

Craig Burnett, associate professor of political science at Hofstra University, said Republicans likely did a better job of turning out those who lean Republican.

Independents think Republicans "tend to deliver on these policies they care about,” such as limited government spending, he said. "That does appeal, especially in the suburbs."

Republicans say it helped them flip the office of Suffolk County executive. Republican Ed Romaine defeated Democrat Dave Calone 57% to 43%. Former County Executive Robert Gaffney was the last candidate to successfully run as a Republican, when he won a third term in 1999.

The GOP said they nominated Romaine, the Brookhaven Town supervisor, for his crossover appeal, similar to that of term-limited County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat who has held the position since 2012 despite elections with higher GOP turnout.

Garcia said Romaine emphasized good-government initiatives that gained traction in other towns, and the campaign focused on sharing "tangent policy points" such as Romaine's success in eradicating foreclosed "zombie homes," and getting banks to pay for razing and rehabilitating the eyesores in blighted neighborhoods. Romaine's plan to suspend the county's energy tax and fill vacant law enforcement positions also played well in polls, Garcia said. 

Independents “were responding to our message of a safer, more affordable Suffolk. We in very plain, direct terms were telling them what that means, beefing up the detective squads to do investigations on crime,” Garcia said.

Schaffer, who also serves as Babylon Town supervisor, said his party is starting a new research project to determine why independents swung Republican.

During the campaign, the party reached out to independent voters and, based on their responses, rated how likely they were to vote for a Democrat. The party is going to call them back to see what issues prompted them, he said.

Schaffer said he tried to de-emphasize the party's name at times during the campaign. At Democrats' town headquarters in Babylon, he replaced a sign that read “Democrats” with a "Team Schaffer" sign to promote Democratic candidates running for the Babylon town board. 

Schaffer, who wasn't on the ballot, said he wanted to remind voters of the elected officials they liked, and the policies they supported.

Of the term "Democrats," Schaffer said: “I wouldn't say it’s a dirty word. It’s a word that got hurt."

In future elections, Schaffer said Democrats need to embrace “micro” campaigns across Suffolk County, tailored to issues in different towns.

"Instead of doing a general countywide global campaign, you’re literally going to have to do campaigns within campaigns in order to win,” he said.

The key is to “pump up the Democratic base on issues they care about on turnout, and to show the blanks that we’re not space invaders, or crazy people from New York City.”

Schaffer blamed the progressive wing of the party for the losses the day after the election. Two weeks later, he said: “I accept full responsibility for this."

"I’m the chairman," he said. "The buck stops with me."

Will Ferraro, a district leader for the Brookhaven Democratic Committee, said the party is trying too hard to appeal to conservative voters.

“We’ve co-opted Republican talking points on issues like public safety to immigration. What that does is to condition voters that a worthwhile Democrat does not take a different view than Republicans, and it also depresses the base,” Ferraro said. “They feel there is no clear difference between Democrats and Republicans."

“The reality is that voters who consider crime as their top issue are never going to vote for a Democrat right now because we haven’t done enough," he added. "We play on their terms, we will lose on their terms.”

But Schaffer said the party needs to appeal to moderate and conservative-minded voters.

"You’re never going to get the independents then. They’re going to continue to vote two to one for the Republican," he said.

After two decades of Democratic control, Republicans over the past four years have leveraged wider turnout margins and successfully courted independent voters to capture Long Island's top county offices, according to new data and political experts.

The trend continued this year as the GOP turned out higher numbers than Democrats and exceeded their own numbers from previous cycles, election board data shows. On Jan. 1, the GOP will control the county executive and district attorney offices in both counties for the first time since 2001. Just two years ago, Democrats held all four offices.

Republicans won big even though there are more registered Democrats. In Nassau, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 86,000 among 981,362 registered voters. Democrats have 32,000 more voters than Republicans in Suffolk, where there are 1,046,068 registered voters.

On Nov. 7, 34.5% of Republicans across Long Island voted, compared with 26.3% of Democrats, the data shows.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Republicans over the past four years have leveraged wider turnout margins and successfully courted independents to capture Long Island's top county offices, according to data and political experts.
  • On Jan. 1the GOP will control the county executive and district attorney offices in Nassau and Suffolk for the first time since 2001. Just two years ago, Democrats held all four offices. 
  • Suffolk Democrats said they are researching why independent voters swung Republican, and are considering “micro” campaigns for future elections, tailored to issues in different towns.

The GOP's success with independents also helped erase gains Democrats worked years to secure, experts said. In Nassau, Democrats lost control of North Hempstead and Long Beach, giving Republicans control over the county's three towns and two cities.

In Nassau, 26.5% of voters are not registered with a political party. In Suffolk, it's 28.4%.

"Without a doubt, they played a role," said Dennis Rigas, who teaches political science at St. Joseph's University in Patchogue. Typically, independent voters "come out and will pretty much go with what the majority trend is for a particular issue," he added.

Democratic leaders said they tried to turn out the vote by raising millions of dollars for marquee races, paying for ads targeting likely voters and crafting moderate messages. But, they acknowledged, Republicans won independent voters by a margin of two to one, according to both parties' internal analyses. 

"That’s where you win or lose the election," said Richard Schaffer, chairman of the Suffolk Democratic Committee.

Jesse Garcia, Suffolk County Republican chairman, used a football metaphor to describe his party's get-out-the-vote efforts.

“Election Day has to be a Super Bowl. We have to roll out huge numbers' worth of door canvassers and phone calling to identify voters that are likely to vote for our candidates and policies,” Garcia said.

Odd-year turnout

For years, Democratic turnout has lagged Republicans in odd-year election cycles, when county, town and city races are on the ballot, election data shows. 

In 2023, Republican turnout in Suffolk County was 35.2% compared with Democratic turnout of 27.8%. In 2019, Republican turnout was 36.7%, compared with 31% for Democrats.

In 2023 in Nassau, Republican turnout exceeded Democratic turnout 33.8% to 25.1%. In 2019, when the ballot also included the district attorney's race, 35.2% of Republicans turned out to vote, compared with 28.9% of Democrats. 

Countywide races were on the ballot in both Nassau and Suffolk in 2021, and Republican turnout exceeded Democratic turnout by about 40% to 27% in both.

Jay Jacobs, state and Nassau County Democratic chairman, said the data shows that across New York, Democrats are less likely to vote in the “off years” when federal and statewide races aren’t on the ballot. Democratic turnout in Nassau was 75% in 2020 during the presidential election, compared with 27% in 2021.

“It’s consistent statewide,” Jacobs said. “Democrats seem to be more focused on state and federal issues.” 

Joseph Cairo, chairman of the Nassau County Republican Committee, said “politics is cyclical. You’re up, you’re down. Right now, we’re on a good run. The issues are with us.”

Republicans pulled a strong vote in Great Neck during the nine-day period of early voting, Cairo said. Once a bastion of Democratic power, Great Neck is now a reliable Republican power base.

In Manhasset, an affluent Republican community where turnout in local years has lagged, the party benefited from having two local candidates on the ballot: incumbent North Hempstead Supervisor Jennifer DeSena, who defeated Democrat Jon Kaiman, and Mary Jo Collins, who won the election for town Receiver of Taxes, succeeding retiring Democrat Charles Berman.

The party also scored big numbers in Lawrence, which decades ago was a Democratic stronghold. It has a large population of Orthodox Jews, a sect that is heavily Republican-leaning.

On the Sunday before Election Day, 1,300 voted early in Lawrence — a promising sign, Cairo said. 

Jacobs defended his party's efforts across Nassau. But in looking at the results of his past two decades as county chair, he came to a blunt assessment: "We win in Nassau County only when it is in response to what I’ll refer to as an extraordinary Republican screw-up."

Battle for the 'blanks'

In both counties, the number of independent voters, known as "blanks," is growing. In 2023, there were 297,123 in Suffolk, compared with 257,038 in 2019. In Nassau, the number was 259,846 in 2023, up from 227,256 in 2019.

Craig Burnett, associate professor of political science at Hofstra University, said Republicans likely did a better job of turning out those who lean Republican.

Independents think Republicans "tend to deliver on these policies they care about,” such as limited government spending, he said. "That does appeal, especially in the suburbs."

Republicans say it helped them flip the office of Suffolk County executive. Republican Ed Romaine defeated Democrat Dave Calone 57% to 43%. Former County Executive Robert Gaffney was the last candidate to successfully run as a Republican, when he won a third term in 1999.

The GOP said they nominated Romaine, the Brookhaven Town supervisor, for his crossover appeal, similar to that of term-limited County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat who has held the position since 2012 despite elections with higher GOP turnout.

Garcia said Romaine emphasized good-government initiatives that gained traction in other towns, and the campaign focused on sharing "tangent policy points" such as Romaine's success in eradicating foreclosed "zombie homes," and getting banks to pay for razing and rehabilitating the eyesores in blighted neighborhoods. Romaine's plan to suspend the county's energy tax and fill vacant law enforcement positions also played well in polls, Garcia said. 

Independents “were responding to our message of a safer, more affordable Suffolk. We in very plain, direct terms were telling them what that means, beefing up the detective squads to do investigations on crime,” Garcia said.

Moving forward

Schaffer, who also serves as Babylon Town supervisor, said his party is starting a new research project to determine why independents swung Republican.

During the campaign, the party reached out to independent voters and, based on their responses, rated how likely they were to vote for a Democrat. The party is going to call them back to see what issues prompted them, he said.

Schaffer said he tried to de-emphasize the party's name at times during the campaign. At Democrats' town headquarters in Babylon, he replaced a sign that read “Democrats” with a "Team Schaffer" sign to promote Democratic candidates running for the Babylon town board. 

Schaffer, who wasn't on the ballot, said he wanted to remind voters of the elected officials they liked, and the policies they supported.

Of the term "Democrats," Schaffer said: “I wouldn't say it’s a dirty word. It’s a word that got hurt."

In future elections, Schaffer said Democrats need to embrace “micro” campaigns across Suffolk County, tailored to issues in different towns.

"Instead of doing a general countywide global campaign, you’re literally going to have to do campaigns within campaigns in order to win,” he said.

The key is to “pump up the Democratic base on issues they care about on turnout, and to show the blanks that we’re not space invaders, or crazy people from New York City.”

Schaffer blamed the progressive wing of the party for the losses the day after the election. Two weeks later, he said: “I accept full responsibility for this."

"I’m the chairman," he said. "The buck stops with me."

Will Ferraro, a district leader for the Brookhaven Democratic Committee, said the party is trying too hard to appeal to conservative voters.

“We’ve co-opted Republican talking points on issues like public safety to immigration. What that does is to condition voters that a worthwhile Democrat does not take a different view than Republicans, and it also depresses the base,” Ferraro said. “They feel there is no clear difference between Democrats and Republicans."

“The reality is that voters who consider crime as their top issue are never going to vote for a Democrat right now because we haven’t done enough," he added. "We play on their terms, we will lose on their terms.”

But Schaffer said the party needs to appeal to moderate and conservative-minded voters.

"You’re never going to get the independents then. They’re going to continue to vote two to one for the Republican," he said.

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