If ever there were a region with a political split personality, it would be Long Island. This year’s presidential election, against the backdrop of Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath, proved that Nassau and Suffolk are consistently inconsistent. Polling data showed a dead heat between President Obama and Gov. Romney, and the incumbent won Nassau and Suffolk counties by a small margin.
The island used to be a Republican haven where local GOP leaders harvested bushels of votes in presidential elections and produced major margins for Nixon, Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43, but strong enthusiasm for Obama proved to be a difficult hurdle for island Republicans. It’s too early to tell, however, if Obama’s re-election means that the suburban counties are trending Democratic.
The 1st Congressional District race—arguably one of the most exciting in the state—did not disappoint. Congressman Tim Bishop benefited from strong turnout for the president and won a bitter re-election rematch against the well-financed Randy Altschuler. Bishop was pummeled by hundreds of campaign ads from Republican super PACs that questioned his ethics, but nonetheless his margin of victory against Altschuler this time around was more comfortable than in 2010, when the race dragged on for weeks after Election Day with recount after recount.
The congressman, despite never winning by overwhelming margins, has proven resilient and managed to defeat strong opponents. Recycled allegations and smears against him seem not to have swayed voters, and he is approaching Teflon status. (For pundits, the 1st district is a fascinating case study, as it rarely toes the party line and has regularly changed hands over the last several decades.)
A number of state Senate races became unexpectedly close contests due to the large number of votes cast on the Democratic line. The GOP looks increasingly vulnerable in at least three Senate seats on the island, with Phil Boyle, Kemp Hannon and Jack Martins only narrowly squeaking past their opponents. In fact, at the time City & State goes to press, Martins’ race against Daniel Ross is not yet over, with published reports suggesting that Ross still holds an outside chance of taking the seat due to the large number of absentee ballots yet to be counted.
If the Democratic challengers had had more money and better get-out-the-vote operations this cycle, they could have snagged a seat and ended Republican hegemony over Long Island’s Senate districts.
Democrats in both counties also had much to cheer about with the election of five candidates to the Supreme Court. Over the years the Republican Party has enjoyed great success in electing their judicial candidates, but with Obama driving turnout the GOP fell short this time.
Next year, considered an “off” year electorally in many parts of the state, is going to be very interesting for political observers on the island. The Republican Party controls the county Legislature in Nassau by a single vote, though historically in off-year elections the GOP has managed to hold on to its power in the towns of Hempstead and Oyster Bay.
Suffolk County off-year elections historically have been the best time for a Republican to win a town board position. Two years ago the Republicans unseated a Democratic incumbent in Islip, even though the Democrat was well financed and had no real pre-election problems. Next year promises to be just as fruitful for the GOP, which will be competitive in races for the county Legislature and other town contests.
The biggest and most unexpected political wild card of all, however, may be Superstorm Sandy.
The two luckiest men on Long Island might be Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. The public, upset with the response to Superstorm Sandy and particularly with the failures of LIPA, is looking for a scapegoat, and the county executives could have suffered at the polls had the election been held this year.
The storm has touched virtually everyone in the region, and candidates in the future will be asked long-term questions about electricity grids, emergency planning, gas rationing and infrastructure. Patchwork solutions to fixing antiquated infrastructure can no longer be par for the course. Island leaders have successfully ignored these problems for decades, but Sandy will now bring them to the forefront.
All of the modernizations that are needed will come at a steep price tag for two counties that already have among the highest property taxes in the nation. It remains to be seen how much money the federal government will contribute to the recovery, but residents can surely expect increases in taxes or utility rates.
Jerry Kremer represented Long Island in the New York State Assembly for 23 years.
Tags: Barack Obama, Bush, Congress, Ed Mangano, Election Day, Jack Martins, Kemp Hannon, LIPA, Long Island, Mitt Romney, Nassau County, Nixon, Phil Boyle, Randy Altschuler, Reagan, Republican, Steve Bellone, Suffolk County, Superstorm Sandy, Tim Bishop