Long Island cast a collective sigh this week, when John Flanagan was elected State Senate majority leader. The region feared it would lose a key leadership position in Albany to an upstate lawmaker.
Flanagan (R-East Northport) no doubt remembered the painful lessons of 2002, when he lost by a single vote the race to become the Assembly's minority leader. So he systematically secured support from outside the Island, given that only nine of the Senate's 33-member GOP majority comes from Nassau and Suffolk counties.
But what does his surprise election mean for Long Island's long-term odds of winning statewide races? His methodical and organized approach to building support across the state for his victory offers a lesson to future Island statewide candidates.
Do the math. Long Island casts about 70 percent of the NYC suburban vote (Suffolk, Nassau, Westchester and Rockland). The suburban bloc is 21 percent of the state's population, but casts as much as 25 percent of the state's general election vote. A quarter of the statewide vote could make the suburbs the equilibrium point for victory in statewide elections.
Steer the wheel. Democrats outnumber Republicans by only 200,000 in the four suburban counties but there are about 640,000 unaffiliated registered voters. Neither party would want to lose Long Island if it hopes to win statewide. After all, Republicans have no chance to win unless they sweep the Island's independent voters, while the Democrats can't lose if they carry independents on Long Island.
Understand the woes. Long Island candidates have trouble winning statewide office. That's because Long Island's vote is not well positioned to dominate either major party's primary. In a GOP primary, upstate's share is 60 percent or more vs. a 26-30 percent share from the suburbs (with Long Island casting 70-75 percent of that suburban vote in a GOP primary). In a Democratic primary, 50-55 percent of the vote comes from NYC, with 28-30 percent from upstate. The suburbs cast a 15-18 percent share (with Long Island casting 65 percent of the Democrat's suburban vote).
It is little wonder that so few Long Islanders have won contested primaries. Al D'Amato beat U.S. Sen. Jacob Javits in the 1980 GOP primary, but there's a long line of unsuccessful primary candidates from both parties, including Republican Bruce Blakeman for U.S. Senate and Democrat Kathleen Rice for attorney general, both in 2010. Thomas DiNapoli (D-Great Neck) became comptroller by the vote of the legislature, after predecessor Alan Hevesi resigned in disgrace. In party primaries, Long Island Republicans face a juggernaut from upstate and on the Democratic side about 90 percent of the vote is cast off Long Island. To prevail in statewide primaries, candidates from Long Island have to build bridges to upstate and NYC voters before they announce campaigns.
Mind the indicators. If a Long Islander gets nominated by his or her party, the bellwether role of the suburbs places them in a strong position to win in a general election. In 2014, DiNapoli was the only statewide candidate to hit 60 percent of the vote and carry all three regions of the state -- upstate, NYC and the suburbs. His Long Island base was key to his victory. If Long Island candidates can get through the primary gauntlet, their hometown strength is a huge advantage in a November election.
Flanagan's election as majority leader and DiNapoli's win last year underscore two ways Long Island can maximize its political influence.
As a tipping point for statewide victory, Long Island candidates must develop coalitions in the state's three regions. Over the long haul, how well those coalition-building skills are honed will determine success.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and an adjunct professor of political science at University at Albany.