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Special election for State Senate seat a big test for Flanagan, Cuomo

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Smithtown, right, speaks

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Smithtown, right, speaks during a news conference in the Red Room at the Capitol as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo listens, in Albany on June 25, 2015. Credit: AP

ALBANY -- The conviction of the second-ranking Republican in the New York State Senate puts the GOP's majority at risk and presents the first major election test for Majority Leader John Flanagan just months after he took over the job, analysts say.

On Wednesday, a federal jury found state Sen. Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton) guilty of lying to the FBI about arranging a job for his son. Libous, who long had served as deputy majority leader in the chamber, automatically lost his seat upon being convicted. His seat could be filled in a special election in November and the stakes will be high for both sides.

"No question this special election will be a big, early test for Flanagan," Siena College pollster Steve Greenberg said. "The [Republican] majority is still intact. But he wants to head into January with 32 Republicans and he wants a [GOP] incumbent in that seat in 2016."

Greenberg said the special election to replace Libous should be a "preview" of the 2016 contests, when all 63 Senate seats are up for grabs.

Libous' conviction left the Republican Senate conference with 32 members, and Democrats with 29 -- their side lost a member, too, last week when John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) was convicted of lying to investigators and obstructing justice. There are now two vacancies. Thirty-two votes are needed to pass any legislation regardless of the number of vacancies, so the GOP has the bare minimum for now.

But there is no immediate threat to Republican power, partially because of a governing alliance with six breakaway Democrats -- five known as the Independent Democratic Conference and the sixth, state Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn), who has said he will stay with the Republicans as long as they are in the majority.

Further, lawmakers aren't due back in Albany until January, so no legislation is at risk for now. Much more is at stake in the race to replace Libous than Sampson, whose Brooklyn district is so overwhelmingly Democratic that Republicans are seen as having little chance to replace him.

Libous' Broome County-based district is more competitive, though it hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate in decades. The district has about 64,000 Republicans, 53,000 Democrats and 32,000 unaffiliated voters.

"That is a Republican seat, a strong Republican seat," said John McArdle, a former Republican spokesman turned consultant. He noted the party controls the county executive and county legislative offices, as well as the Binghamton mayor's office and "feels very confident about succeeding Sen. Libous."

Broome County Executive Barbara Fiala is expected to announce her candidacy this week -- in fact, Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Thursday he'd "do whatever I can to elect Barbara Fiala." She had served as Cuomo's motor vehicles commissioner in his first term.

The governor recently installed her as head of a minor party he created, the Women's Equality Party.

Flanagan (R-East Northport) issued a statement saying he was "100 percent confident that we will win the special election in the 52nd Senate District."

While Libous was convicted, the former top Republican in the Senate is under indictment. State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) has been charged with extortion and solicitation of bribes for allegedly pressuring a real estate company, an environmental firm and a medical malpractice insurer to provide jobs for his son, who also was indicted. Skelos has said he and his son are innocent, but his colleagues forced him to step down as leader and installed Flanagan in early May.

"This will be the first election since Skelos was indicted and Cuomo's approval rating took a tumble," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. "So this is a critical bellwether of the ability of both parties to weather adversity."

Cuomo has seen his approval ratings fall to all-time lows just months after he was re-elected in 2014. Just 39 percent in this month's Siena poll said he was doing a good or excellent job, compared to 60 percent who said poor or fair. Upstate he fares worse, with 32 percent saying the Democrat was doing a good or excellent job.

Even if Cuomo's ratings are low, Greenberg said he can help a Democrat in the race because "he still controls the state Democratic committee and he can be a great fundraiser."

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