ALBANY — Democrats faced a rare opportunity to flip seats in the Senate and Assembly this election when incumbent Republicans with high name recognition and fundraising prowess vacated their seats earlier this year on Long Island and upstate. Yet Democrats so far have leads in just three of the 20 open seats in both houses.
In the Senate, Republicans now lead in seven of 10 open Senate seats on Long Island and upstate, pending the count of thousands of absentee ballots in each district.
In the 1st Senate District, former Republican Assemb. Anthony Palumbo leads Democrat Laura Ahearn, an activist and lawyer. The district was represented by Republican Sen. Kenneth LaValle of Port Jefferson for 44 years. Palumbo leads in the district, which has a narrow edge of Republicans and Conservatives — 86,736 — compared with 84,984 Democrats, according to enrollments released last week.
In the 2nd Senate District, Republican Mario Mattera is leading Democrat Michael Siderakis for the seat held by former Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan of East Northport for 18 years until his retirement this year. The district has 89,901 Republicans and Conservatives to 79,373 Democrats.
Republicans also hold leads in seats vacated by GOP Sens. Robert Antonacci in Syracuse, George Amedore in the upper Hudson Valley, Betty Little in the North Country, Michael Ranzenhofer in Genesee County and suburbs from Buffalo to Rochester, and James Seward in Otsego County. In the Antonacci, Amedore and Ranzenhofer districts, Republicans are leading despite an edge in Democratic enrollment.
But the count of absentee ballots may change the leader in at least two of those races. In the Antonacci district, Republican Angi Renna leads by 7,228 votes with 37,149 absentee votes to be counted, 17,127 of them from Democrats, according to the latest state tally on Nov. 5. In the Amedore district, Republican Richard Amedure leads by 8,171 votes with 25,987 absentee votes to count so far, 13,311 of which came from Democrats.
In the Assembly, Republicans held all 10 of their open seats, all their incumbents were reelected, and a Republican leads veteran Democratic Assemb. Ellen Jaffee in the 97th Assembly District in Rockland County. Republican Michael Lawler led Jaffee by 7,576 votes on Tuesday, but more than 14,000 absentee ballots have yet to be counted, 9,327 of them cast by Democrats. Lawler leads even though the district has twice as many Democrats as Republicans and Conservatives.
"It was a good night," said Assembly Republican leader Will Barclay. "Obviously, it’s tough to be a Republican in a blue state."
Assembly Republicans so far are leading in open seats including those vacated by Palumbo of New Suffolk in the 2nd Assembly District; Andrew Garbarino of Bayport in the 7th District, Michael LiPetri of South Farmingdale in the 9th District and Andrew Raia of Huntington in the 12th District. Each of those districts have significantly more enrolled Republicans than Democrats.
In Nassau County, the 16th Assembly District was vacated by Democratic Assemb. Anthony D’Urso of Port Washington. Despite a Democratic enrollment advantage, Republican Ragini Srivastava led Democrat Gina Sillitti by 3,162 votes on Tuesday night. There are, however, 21,306 absentee votes to be counted, 11,425 of them from Democrats, according to final county records.
So, what happened to what some political observers predicted would be a blue wave fueled by two years of all-Democratic control of the legislature and its progressive shift?
Some of the wave is likely still flowing in, but slowly, because of more than 1.5 million absentee ballots cast statewide that won’t be counted until at least Nov. 10, said Democratic political strategist Bruce Gyory. That influx of mailed-in votes could sink some candidates now buoyed by in-person votes from nine days of early voting and on Election Day. Election records show Democrats use absentee ballots at twice the rate of Republicans, and Democrats are confident most of the current leads held by GOP candidates will evaporate.
"Open seats tend to be retained by the party that previously held them," said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at the State University of New York at New Paltz. He also said the progressive moves by the Democratic majorities doesn’t play so well in "moderate and sometimes center-right districts" outside New York City.
Benjamin also noted the impact of millions of dollars in startling anti-crime ads by independent groups that resonated with many voters outside New York City in an election in which expanded use of mail-in ballots and early voting made it easier to act.
"Republican organizations are still very good at getting out the vote and in their advertising, exploiting the vulnerabilities of their opponents," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. "Demographic and ideological trends still favor the long-term prospects of Democrats on Long Island and in suburbs around the country, but here, to paraphrase Samuel Clemens‘ famous line, rumors of their deaths are greatly exaggerated."
Barclay, the Assembly Republican leader, also points to the way Republican President Donald Trump super-energized rural Republicans and some suburban voters to turn out and vote Republican down the line. Barclay said Trump and state Republicans echoed similar messages against rising crime, including the Democrats’ new law that eliminated bail in most nonviolent cases, and the need to cut some of the nation’s highest taxes. He said those basic messages crossed party lines in the state dominated more than 2-1 by Democratic voters.
"We knew from the outset that there would not be a so-called blue wave," said state Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy. He cited Republican leads against Democratic Sens. Monica Martinez of Brentwood, James Gaughan of Northport and Kevin Thomas of Levittown.
"It started with an incredible crop of high-caliber candidates coming to us to run because of the disastrous results of one-party rule," Langworthy said.
The Assembly’s Democratic majority, with 103 of the chamber’s 150 seats, is confident little will change once the absentee ballots are counted. It also held all 10 of its open seats.
"There is a huge Democratic mail-in advantage in all these seats so we are more than confident that after all votes are counted, our conference numbers will be what they are traditionally," said Michael Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
As for Senate Democrats, they see big wins in flipping three longtime Republican Senate seats and possibly more when paper ballots are counted as a major win.
The three open Republican Senate seats that Democrats appear to have flipped were vacated by Republican Sens. Joseph Robach, who was in office nearly 30 years, and Richard Funke in the Rochester area; and Chris Jacobs in Buffalo. In each district, Democratic enrollment outnumbers Republican.