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Moderate suburban voters flex muscles in elections statewide

Ed Mangano, then the new Nassau County

Ed Mangano, then the new Nassau County Executive, with Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009 in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

ALBANY — Moderate suburban voters who are crucial in an era of polarized politics flipped Nassau and Westchester counties’ executive posts and the Hempstead town supervisor’s office last week as part of a resurgence of Democrats statewide one year after Republican Donald Trump was elected president, political authorities from each party said.

“The most important thing that happened on Tuesday was the suburban vote for Democrats, which should make the Republicans more anxious,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a national political strategist who has advised former President Bill Clinton and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Tuesday’s results, however, weren’t unexpected.

“There’s always a reaction to a new president,” Sheinkopf said, noting Tuesday’s similarity to the 2008 election. He cited the 2009 GOP juggernaut a year after Democratic President Barack Obama was elected, as well as President Bill Clinton, whose poor start in 1993 led to a Republican wave in midterm elections in Congress.

But whether Tuesday’s outcomes reflect a “big blue wave” that would roil legislative races in 2018 to determine control of the State Senate, the governor’s office and Congress remains uncertain.

“I don’t know if you can say it is a full-blown tsunami, but it clearly is a wave of big enough size that it could swamp the GOP next year in local, state and national elections,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies.

Still, although not necessarily bellwethers, “these New York races . . . do tell us something about some trends that could spell trouble for Republicans in 2018,” said Kevin Madden, a New Yorker who is a national Republican strategist and was a top adviser to former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

On Tuesday, nine months into Trump’s unpopular start, Democrat Laura Curran beat Republican Jack Martins in a race for Nassau County executive, a post that has been held since 2009 by a Republican; Democrat Laura Gillen won the Hempstead town supervisor’s job, which has never been held by a Democrat; and Democrat Errol Toulon leads in the fight for the Suffolk County sheriff’s job.

Statewide, Democratic State Sen. George Latimer beat two-term incumbent Republican Rob Astorino for Westchester County executive, and Democrats took control of the Erie County Legislature for the first time in four years. Democrats in Monroe County posted several county and local wins, including taking control of the large suburban town of Henrietta.

Some Republicans are quick to try to tamp down speculation of a trend.

“The Dems are trying to fabricate evidence of a wave, as they have for the past several cycles,” said Matthew Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to give Republican control of state legislatures.

“In a wave, you win purple and red seats in purple and red states,” said the former staffer for the New York State Senate’s majority. “With very few isolated exceptions, that’s not what has happened. Essentially, the Dems expended a significant amount of resources to crawl back to neutral in blue seats in blue states.”

Still, Democrats say the wins energized the party.

“It’s a big, blue wave and we are absolutely riding that wave,” said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) who believes the trend will give Democrats the Senate majority in 2018. “Certainly the results of last year have awakened everyone.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he will seize the momentum to elect Democrats to Congress and to unite Senate Democrats next year.

“From Erie County to Suffolk County, which supported Trump in the election, you’ve seen phenomenal Democratic victories,” Cuomo said.

Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) said he sees a Democratic wave like that of 2009 for the GOP: “If I was a Republican in the suburbs, I’d be polishing off my resume right about now.”

Despite parallels to 2009, sweeping conclusions about off-year elections are difficult. On Tuesday local issues included corruption scandals in Nassau and Suffolk counties and a late mailer funded by the state Republican Party depicting MS-13 gang members as new neighbors welcomed by Curran, which many Democrats had called racist.

There also were local clashes such as intraparty friction in Hempstead and in Westchester County, possible voter fatigue when faced with the prospect of electing any candidate to a third term. Local issues also drove the surprising win by an independent for Syracuse mayor.

Further, Republicans weren’t routed. Republicans won or retained many key positions, including re-election of Republican county executives in Orange and Rockland counties. Dutchess County remained in GOP control and Binghamton’s Republican mayor was re-elected.

“The suburban voter is somebody who wants to see government solving problems, it’s not a partisan thing,” said Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone, a Democrat who serves in a county Trump won. “To the extent they see that not happening in Washington . . . I think that’s what you’re seeing.”

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