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Targeted by Republicans, most freshman Long Island Democrats prevail

Sen. James Gaughran declares victory as the New

Sen. James Gaughran declares victory as the New York State Senator for the 5th district during a press conference in Garden City on Wednesday. Credit: Barry Sloan

Long Island was one of the few places in New York where Republicans were playing offense in the 2020 election campaign, trying to oust a handful of freshman Democrats in the State Senate.

It looks as if they succeeded in just one race, at most.

As the final absentee ballots are tabulated, Sens. James Gaughran (D-Northport) and Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) have prevailed after initially trailing on Election Day. Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-North Hempstead), who was never threatened like her colleagues, won comfortably.

Only Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) appears in trouble. Though totals haven’t been finalized, she trailed Republican Alexis Weik by more than 13,000 votes after Election Day and the ongoing absentee count hasn’t yet been enough to make up the difference.

The Long Island victories solidify the Democrats’ hold on the State Senate and could help them reach a "supermajority" — two-thirds of the 63 seats — if several upstate races break their way. As of Friday, it appeared they would have at least 42 seats, after beginning the year with 40.

Gaining a supermajority could strengthen the Senate’s hand in negotiation bills and prove important if the State Legislature ever contemplates overriding a veto by Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

For more than a year, Democrats have been worried about protecting their Long Island freshman, especially after the State Legislature rewrote the state’s bail laws and approved a number of other progressive measures. In the end, they largely succeeded.

"We saw the threat and we met the threat," said Jay Jacobs, the state and Nassau County Democratic chairman.

The Long Island contests were among the legislative races that attracted the most campaign spending in 2020.

Republicans were aided by billionaire Ron Lauder, who launched an ad campaign with $4 million to target Gaughran, Thomas, Martinez and Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn). Police unions also campaigned heavily against the four, focusing on the bail issue and sponsoring mobile billboards among other things.

"The bail reform bill was the MTA tax all over again," said Michael Dawidziak, an Island political consultant who most often works with Republicans, referring to a controversial payroll tax that helped Republicans take control of the Senate in the 2010 elections. The GOP was hoping Democrats made the same strategic mistake with bail, which was approved in 2019 and eliminated bail requirements for most misdemeanors.

On the other side, Democrats were helped by labor unions, the real estate industry and charter-school advocates. Charter schools especially helped Thomas, spending nearly $1 million on his behalf by late October.

The Democrat campaign committees also had millions of dollars more on hand than their Republican counterparts.

Yet an internal Democratic poll in early October showed that Gaughran, Martinez and Thomas were in trouble, Jacobs said.

A GOP ad said Gaughran "voted to release violent criminals." Another said: "New York’s crime wave is no accident — State Senator Jim Gaughran voted for it."

"The [Republican] ads were having a real impact," Jacobs said. "I rang the alarm bells."

The state party committee stepped up fundraising. Thomas and Gaughran cut digital ads in which they spoke directly to the camera to try to fend off the GOP attacks.

"By now, you’ve probably seen lots of ads about me. They’re not nice. And they’re not true," Thomas said.

"If the attacks they are throwing at me seem crazy, well that’s because they are," Gaughran said.

As Election Day and early voting totals rolled in on Nov. 3, Republicans held huge leads against Gaughran, Gounardes, Martinez and Thomas. But results had to await the tabulating of an unprecedented number of absentee ballots triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the end, Democrats won more than 70% of the absentee tally in many races across the state. It was enough to push Gaughran, Gounardes and Thomas to narrow victories.

Among the reasons: Democrats touted absentee voting much more than Republicans, the absentee tally in the state significantly favored Democrat Joe Biden over Republican President Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, and absentees tended to vote straight down the party line more so than in typical elections.

For example, on Long Island the typical "drop off" from supporting a party’s presidential candidate to a state legislative candidate can be 15%-20%, Jacobs said. With this year’s absentees, it was running about 9%.

The races "never should have been that close," given Democrats’ advantages going in, Dawidziak said. The bail legislation "hurt them all" and made them vulnerable, he said, although it appears all but one of the targeted senators will survive.

Another big factor: Independent and minor-party voters — especially the ones who voted absentee — broke for the Democrats, said Bruce Gyory, a former gubernatorial adviser.

"What you see clearly in the counts and the exit polls is independents did not break evenly," Gyory said. "Not only were a fairly large number of independents voting absentee but also they were voting Democrat."

He said Long Island independents "have tended to break sharply one way or another" each election cycle. Due to an array of factors — including Trump’s unpopularity in New York and in particular Nassau County — they gravitated toward Democrats this time.

"The bail issue had an effect on Democrats," Gyory said, "but it didn’t knock them out."

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