Let’s put a spotlight on the long-term challenges facing New York State’s Democrats.
At first blush the Democrats appear able to relax: Registration numbers, the gender gap and the growth of minority voters are all significant obstacles for the GOP. Nonetheless, there are no final victories in politics. In the loosened soil of each election can be found the ashes of decline, as well as the seeds of rebirth.
Bruce N. Gyory
The Democrats face three tests. First, the sheer scope of the Democrats’ success in holding key offices means they must govern well to keep winning. They hold all four statewide offices: governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general. Democrats also hold the Assembly and, through the Independent Democratic Conference, share in the coalition governance of the narrowly divided state Senate. Both United States senators are Democrats.
If Bill de Blasio is elected mayor of New York the Democrats will also hold the lion’s share of local government seats, especially with the possibility of the party winning back hotly contested county executive seats in Westchester and Nassau counties.
However, this overwhelming reach of incumbency carries risks. If events triggered an anti-incumbent mood, it would leave Democrats as the lightning rod for public discontent. A cascading wave of local fiscal crises could become that triggering event. Democrats would be wise to heed the dangers of the fiscal straits ahead and to temper expectations by publicly acknowledging them.
Second, while New York is a solidly Democratic state, it is not a liberal one outside of its urban centers. Beyond New York City the registration numbers are relatively even (2.7 million Democrats to 2.3 million Republicans), and elections are often decided by the “unaffiliated” or “blank” voters more commonly known as independents (1.6 million voters). Independent voters outside of the five boroughs tend to be moderate: fiscally conservative but liberal on social issues. The Democrats’ problem, thus, is to keep their diverse registration base together, while carrying moderate independents.
If Republicans succeed in breaking off pieces of the Democratic coalition—as Dewey and Rockefeller once did by dividing Jewish and liberal voters in New York City, as Giuliani achieved by disuniting outer borough Jewish and white Catholics, and as Pataki and Bloomberg prevailed in doing by adding Hispanic and Asian voters to the Giuliani Democrats—Democrats will encounter problems maintaining their electoral gains. Complacency and taking coalitions for granted are often the harbingers of defeat at the polls.
Third, Democratic primaries in our state’s cities have lately favored the party’s progressive wing. This year’s mayoral primary victories by de Blasio in New York City, Lovely Warren in Rochester and Kathy Sheehan in Albany put pelts on the belt for the Democratic Party’s so-called progressive wing.
Will the Democrats’ progressive urban cores, where Republicans offer scant resistance, find synergy or friction with the statewide challenge of carrying swing counties upstate in the northern suburbs and on Long Island, which are not driven by liberal voters? There need not be discord as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, U.S. Sens. Schumer and Gillibrand and Comptroller DiNapoli provide strong cover for local progressives. For example, Cuomo’s electoral cloak protected Eric Schneiderman from a late charge in the polls by Dan Donovan in the 2010 AG race.
The bottom line is simply this: If Democrats govern well, maintain cohesion and respect the different coalitions needed to win—not just in urban areas but in the suburbs, upstate as well as downstate—they will be fine. But if political rivalries surge between the Democrats’ urban strongholds and swing suburban regions, the Democrats could face troubled electoral waters, especially if an anti-incumbency wave washes across the state at the very point divisive ideological primaries take hold.
In the final analysis, current political factors all favor the Democratic Party, but despite its abundant success in recent years, it still must be wary to continue to earn the consent of the governed.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political consultant with Corning Place Communications and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.
Tags: Andrew Cuomo, Bill De Blasio, Bloomberg, Bruce Gyory, Dan Donovan, Democrat, Dewey, DiNapoli, Eric Schneiderman, Gillibrand, giuliani, GOP, Independent Democratic Conference, Kathy Sheehan, Lovely Warren, New York, Pataki, Republican, rockefeller, Schumer