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Anatomy of an upset: LI's Thomas scores biggest state Election Day surprise

Despite little money or staff, the Levittown Democrat upset veteran Republican State Sen. Kemp Hannon by getting out minority and ethnic South Asian voters.

Kevin Thomas celebrates his victory at the Democratic

Kevin Thomas celebrates his victory at the Democratic election night victory party at the Garden City Hotel on Nov. 6. Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

On a night of election surprises in New York, none was bigger than Kevin Thomas.

The 34-year-old Levittown Democrat had little name recognition and little staff. He had no financial help from the state party aside from free office space. His campaign-finance reports detailed no TV or radio ads but instead were filled with receipts for texting services, and Uber and Long Island Rail Road rides.

But he knocked on thousands of doors in Nassau County, strategically wooed minority voters in a demographically changing district and rode a surge in Democratic turnout to oust State Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), a 29-year incumbent.

It was the under-the-radar upset of the night, a number of Democrats, Republicans and analysts agreed.

“It was the surprise of the night because no one was even talking about Hannon,” said Michael Dawidziak, a Long Island political consultant who works mostly for Republicans.

Election-night totals showed Thomas captured 51,635 (50.6 percent) votes to Hannon’s 50,327 (49.3). He will become New York’s first Indian-American state senator.  

Seemingly every two years, Democrats promised to defeat Hannon, raising money and promoting the profiles of their candidates. But the veteran Republican swatted aside all challengers, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district. Ironically, in a year in which the district drew little attention, Hannon finally lost.

“It was under the radar and I’m glad it was,” Thomas said. He lives in Levittown with Rincy, his wife, who is a pharmacist, and he had practiced as a civil rights attorney before running for office. He had handled many student loan cases, some of them high profile, and decided to enter politics after the Trump administration curbed oversight of the student loan industry.

“My form of resistance was running for office,” Thomas said, “because my colleagues who were out there protesting, it wasn’t enough.”

He was one of six Democrats winning State Senate races on Long Island — out of a possible nine. It was a shocking result in a place where Republicans had long controlled all nine seats. Overall, Democrats flipped eight State Senate districts to go from a one-seat deficit to control of the chamber, 39-24.  

Thomas attributed his win to “knocking on as many doors as possible” in Uniondale and Hempstead to talk about school funding, and specifically working to turn out voters in pockets of East Meadow that have growing Indian-American and Bangladeshi-American populations.

“South Asians in general don’t go out and vote,” Thomas said. “I got them out to vote.”

Turnout appeared larger than typical in Uniondale, where Thomas took 88 percent to 92 percent of the vote in many election districts.  

In East Meadow, Thomas’ campaign sent volunteers to polling sites just to check the overall turnout numbers. When the report came that certain “litmus test” districts had 400 voters, he knew he had a chance. Never mind that votes were split almost evenly (Thomas won one district by just 14 votes, another by 13), it was the overall turnout that mattered to him.

When he walked into the Garden City Hotel, where many Senate Democrats gathered to watch the results Tuesday, Thomas said he told Senate Minority Leader Andrea-Stewart Cousins (D-Yonkers): “I split East Meadow. I have a chance.”

Other Democratic victories were predicted, such as James Gaughran over Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset). This one caught everyone flat-footed. 

“Every year, the polling said Kemp could lose. And every year, Kemp would pull it out. So we got used to it,” Dawidziak said. “But this year, it happened. The ‘blue wave’ made it happen.”

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) conceded the race and hailed Hannon's long run, especially as the Senate Health Committee chairman.

"Albany won't be the same place without Kemp Hannon, who long ago distinguished himself as one of the nation's leading experts on health care policy," Flanagan said in a statement. "He is a dedicated public servant who did this for all the right reasons."

Thomas raised nearly $100,000 for the race, according to state Board of Elections reports. He bought no TV ads but spent for digital ads on Facebook and tried to reach people through texts and Instagram. Importantly, he did get fundraising assistance from some national Democratic backers, such as Act Blue, Change Research and Democracy Engine.

But he got nothing to speak of from New York's Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

“He did it on his own,” one Democrat said.

Hannon served 13 years as a state assemblyman before being elected to Senate in 1989. He began the year with more than $400,000 in his campaign coffers and raised about $280,000 through 2018. But reports show he’d spent only $110,000 of that on his own race as of late October. And there were no big-ticket expenditures, just mailers, print ads and signs.

When post-Election Day reports are filed, it’s possible Hannon’s account might show a balance of more than $300,000.

Whereas state Republicans pumped money into other “hot” Long Island races, Hannon — like Thomas — received no institutional help.

“In some respects, the fact that neither side was spending money was what made it happen,” said Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), head of the Senate Dems’ campaign committee. “If we had put money in to help Kevin, they would have put money in to help Kemp.”

As results began to come in, Thomas jumped to a lead. But Gianaris said he had seen the same thing occur with previous Hannon opponents, so there was some skepticism.

“As it kept holding up through the night, we realized this was a thing,” Gianaris said.

The victory was a bit of icing on the Democrats’ cake — they knew they had won Senate control even before the Thomas-Hannon race was final. But next election cycle, they promise they won’t overlook Tuesday’s surprise winner.  

“I can assure this: He will have substantial financial support in two years,” Gianaris said with a laugh. “He’s not sneaking up on anybody again.”

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