Democrats Trounce GOP Across New York In 2012
By the time the networks had called the election for President Barack Obama at 11:20 p.m. on Tuesday night, Republicans across New York State were already reeling from the surprising revelation that they were suffering one of their most disastrous defeats in decades.
On a night that most experts predicted would do little to alter the status quo in state politics—perhaps one that would even improve the fortunes of the long slumping GOP—the Republicans instead found themselves on the brink of losing their last significant stronghold in Albany: control of the state Senate.
“The [Lyndon] Johnson landslide was pretty devastating, but in my memory, yes, this is the worst [election ever for the state GOP],” said former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who has been involved in the New York Republican Party since the 1960s.
Meanwhile, across the aisle, there was elation. The president’s coattails, combined with the Democrats’ vast two-to-one statewide registration advantage and the shifting demographics of the electorate, had made New York a bluer state than ever.
“When we look at the numbers—and it’s not just winners, it’s even in the losses—New York went monstrously Democratic last night, and I don’t think any of us saw that coming,” said Jefrey Pollock, president of Global Strategy Group, a consulting company that advised numerous Democratic candidates this cycle.
From top to bottom on the ballot, the results were calamitous for the GOP. Virtually equaling his commanding 2008 performance in New York, President Obama amassed nearly 63 percent of the vote—his highest total in any state other than Vermont.
The race for U.S. Senate was even worse for the Republicans, who have not won a statewide election since Gov. George Pataki cruised to a third term in 2002. Running for her first full term, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, once considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the state, collected a staggering 72 percent of the vote against conservative lawyer Wendy Long, which, when all the ballots are counted, will likely give her the highest percent total of any statewide candidate in New York history.
Gillibrand’s virtuoso Election Day performance cemented her stardom in the national party, as much for her resounding victory as for the over $1 million she raised for female candidates across the country this cycle, many of whom ended up winning, and whose gratitude could well solidify into the type of power base Gillibrand would need if she ever decided to indulge the rumors swirling around her and seek the presidency in 2016 or beyond.
Like Gillibrand, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s future plans will likely be heavily influenced by two people: President Obama and Hillary Clinton. If Obama’s second term goes poorly the Democrats’ brand will almost certainly be damaged, discouraging members of his party looking to succeed him to run. If it goes well, Vice President Joe Biden could be in a desirable position in 2016 to move over into the Oval Office.
The success of Obama’s policies is also likely to directly shape Cuomo’s own approach to issues like climate change, immigration and the legalization of marijuana, as the governor decides to what degree he wants his own record to align with or play counterpoint to the president’s.
Then there’s Clinton. If she were to run for president again, still wielding the high approval ratings she has achieved as Secretary of State, Clinton could potentially clear the primary field, thus freezing the ambitions of her fellow Democrats for four if not eight years.
Over these next four years, Cuomo, Gillibrand and Sen. Chuck Schumer will be well positioned to deliver more government aid to New York as a result of Obama’s victory—which should come as a relief to the victims of Superstorm Sandy, who may have feared a cold shoulder had Mitt Romney been elected, given how Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey rallied behind the president in the wake of the disaster.
Cuomo will need all of the federal assistance he can get to address the state’s mounting fiscal challenges, to protect it from natural and man-made disasters and to move forward with realizing many of the ambitious goals he has for building what he has dubbed the “new New York.”
Further complicating the work he has ahead of him is the shifting landscape in Albany as a result of Tuesday’s election. Cuomo’s lack of enthusiasm for endorsing Democratic state Senate candidates this year was widely seen as a sign that he preferred the Senate to remain in the hands of Majority Leader Dean Skelos and the Republican conference, though he could never say so openly without being branded a traitor to his party.
Tacitly, however, the advantages of the GOP majority have been many for Cuomo. It has allowed him to push through legislation of a more conservative bent than he could have gotten through two Democrat-controlled chambers, like pension reform and the property tax cap, while simultaneously enabling the governor to claim a track record of working across party lines, an appealing narrative in the current political climate for a candidate with designs on national office.
The Republican majority has also proven a handy scapegoat in cases where the governor has been either unwilling or unable to pass a bill favored by the Democratic Assembly and Senate minority, such as independent redistricting and increasing the minimum wage. When those measures failed, Cuomo had the Republicans to blame.
Yet though there are still scenarios whereby the GOP could cling to its tenuous majority [for an analysis of the battle for control of the state Senate, see page 6], at the very least there will be new forces weighing upon the balance of power in the Capitol next session. Even more likely is that there will be a new third man (or the first woman!) in the room come January—a wild card with the potential to disrupt the largely tranquil dominance Cuomo has enjoyed over his first two years as governor.
Regardless of the outcome in the Senate, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is likely to re-emerge after quietly withdrawing from the limelight amid his most challenging stretch as leader since the failed coup against him in 2000. Though Republicans across the state tried to use Silver’s failure to disclose the sexual harassment allegations against disgraced Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez as attack ad fodder to identify their opponents with the notoriously scandal-ridden culture of Albany, that tack ultimately proved ineffective. In fact, on Election Day Assembly Democrats actually ended up growing their numbers by five seats with one race still to be decided, swelling their veto-proof majority to at least 106 members out of 150.
Democrats also bested their rivals from the North Country to Suffolk County in races for the House of Representatives—yet another of the election’s unpleasant surprises for the GOP. Outperforming months of polls that consistently portrayed every incumbent Republican representative in the state as either ahead or on equal footing with their opponents, Democrats were able to knock off two freshmen who rode the Tea Party wave into office in 2010: Reps. Nan Hayworth and Ann Marie Buerkle.
Elsewhere, Republican Reps. Tom Reed and Chris Gibson, both of whom were expected to cruise to victory, staved off unexpectedly strong challenges from their previously unknown Democratic opponents, Nate Shinagawa and Julian Schreibman, respectively. At the same time, beleaguered Democratic incumbents like Reps. Bill Owens and Tim Bishop held off challengers that the GOP had once believed would prevail.
In all, despite the fact that New York’s congressional delegation shrank by two members following this year’s decennial redistricting, Democrats were poised to increase their current number of seats in the House, until former Erie County Executive Chris Collins squeaked by Rep. Kathy Hochul in the early morning hours, giving Republicans their only silver lining of the election.
Democrats have long maintained that it was only a matter of time before their growing statewide registration advantage overwhelmed the meticulously gerrymandered outposts of the Senate Republicans—and their nemeses were banished to statistical oblivion, never to re-emerge as a serious political force with which to be reckoned.
While he contends that it is possible for Republicans to rebound from this loss, veteran GOP consultant Bill O’Reilly admits that the state party has a “real problem” at its core.
“We need to figure out what to do,” O’Reilly said. “We had really, really good candidates that lost: Bob Castelli in Westchester, Bob Cohen, Eric Ulrich, Randy Altschuler, Nan Hayworth—quality candidates, and moderate candidates on the social stuff, so you can’t say it was social issues. New York is increasingly becoming a Democratic state by registration, and in these high turnout years it’s getting tough.”
Longtime Democratic consultant Bruce Gyory also points to the math as a daunting problem for state Republicans to figure out, but he is certain that a solution exists.
“In American politics there are no final victories or defeats,” Gyory said. “Out of the ashes a phoenix can always rise.”
—Additional reporting by Jon Lentz and Nick Powell
Tags: Andrew Cuomo, Ann Marie Buerkle, Barack Obama, Bill O'Reilly, Bob Cohen, Bruce Gyory, Chris Christie, Chris Collins, Chris Gibson, Chuck Schumer, Dean Skelos, George Pataki, Hillary Clinton, Jefrey Pollock, Joe Biden, Joe Bruno, Kathy Hochul, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bloomberg, Mitt Romney, Nan Hayworth, Sheldon Silver, Ted O'Brien, Tom Reed, Vito Lopez, Wendy Long