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Gyory: New York Senate's odd couple held its own

State Senator Jeffrey Klein and Senate Majority Leader

State Senator Jeffrey Klein and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Photo Credit: AP

Last week, the state legislative session ended with a mix of action and inaction. Now it's time to assess both the State Senate's coalition governance and how that relates to the political challenges looming, heading into next year's elections.

When the coalition between the State Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre, and the Independent Democratic Conference, led by Sen. Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx, was forged in January, there was speculation that Skelos had ceded too much ground. The fear from Republican ranks was that the IDC would drive through progressive legislation they opposed.

The fact that the coalition maintained unity throughout the session was a measure of both Skelos' and Klein's shrewd and supple political skills. As the coalition threaded its way through the issues, a pattern emerged: This coalition was consensus-driven, so Skelos' conference was never overrun on progressive legislation.

When gun control passed, many interpreted it as a defeat for Skelos and a victory for Klein. It was a feather in Klein's cap, yes, but gun control was also popular in the swing downstate suburban districts so critical to Skelos' conference. Skelos took heavy criticism from upstate conservatives, but passing gun control protected his conference's suburban flanks.

Then on school aid, Long Island's "shares" were embedded in the budget, and Skelos was able to credibly portray that as a victory for Long Island. The Senate traded passing minimum wage for a tax rebate to some people with children -- a win for the IDC. But while Senate Republicans may not like raising the minimum wage ideologically, it's very popular with the blue collar voters who are key to their electoral coalitions, especially upstate.

So if we look at the Senate's coalition through this insider prism, it gets high grades. But if we look through a political prism, there are threats are on the horizon.

The coalition got into a nasty spat with the campaign finance advocates led by Jonathan Soros, son of billionaire George Soros. The GOP conference also refused to work toward a compromise on the governor's call to codify Roe v. Wade protections, keeping the bill from reaching the Senate floor.

Public opinion polls show the opposition to codifying Roe v. Wade dwindling. A Quinnipiac poll this month shows only 22 percent of New York State voters opposed late-term abortions when the woman's health was at risk (68 percent supported); while only 15 percent opposed a late-term abortion when the woman's life was at risk (75 percent supported). Only 24 percent opposed -- and 67 percent supported -- the governor's bill.

Electoral outcomes on Long Island are driven by the highly educated, often affluent, and often white Catholic female voters, who have become strongly pro-choice. The GOP conference can block the governor's pro-choice litmus test from reaching the floor, but after doing so, can it sustain itself politically in 2014?

Not only did support for the Reproductive Health Act, which is at the core of the governor's current proposal, help Democrats win seats in 2012 -- Ted O'Brien in Rochester and George Latimer in Rye -- but it was also the final piece in the puzzle producing Cecilia Tkaczyk's upset over Sen. George Amedore in the Capital District.

In fact, the Tkaczyk upset showed the potency of a Soros-powered campaign finance reform advocacy, functionally tied to a pro-choice message. Soros' spending put the seat in play; the choice issue sealed the upset.

The Senate coalition held -- governmentally. But, the GOP side has some hard political calculations to make in the future. One thing is certain: If choice and campaign finance remain salient issues between now and November 2014, Republicans in swing areas such as Long Island will find themselves in key battles for control of the Senate.

Bruce N. Gyory is a consultant with Corning Place Communications and an adjunct professor of political science at the University at Albany.