New York State

How the state Senate GOP is picking its legislative battles

Republican votes are helping Democrats pad their margins – but not on immigration and abortion.

The New York State Senate.

The New York State Senate. Mike Groll

Whether it has been new protections for transgender peopleearly voting or closing the LLC loophole, state Senate Republican votes have helped Democrats pass high-profile progressive legislation by big margins. This stems in part from ongoing pressure on GOP lawmakers to move towards the political center at a time when the state is increasingly tilting towards the Democrats. But their unified opposition to the recently passed Reproductive Health Act shows that Republican state senators also have to keep their eyes on their political right flanks to prevent a primary challenges from emerging.

On average, in the first eight bills that have passed the state Senate and become law this year, about four out of every 10 GOP senators have sided with the Democrats, an analysis of Senate records shows. Republicans collectively blocked many of these same bills from passing in past years, when they controlled the chamber.

This year, 17 Republicans voted in favor of banning gay conversion therapy, 16 voted to limit campaign contributions from limited liability corporations and 12 voted in favor of consolidating the state and federal primary days. In total, every single Republican senator that has been at the Capitol has voted in favor of at least one Democratic bill, while only one Democrat on one bill – state Sen. Joe Addabbo on the measure to expand abortion rights – has voted against his party.

For now, some Republican state senators say they are fine with Democrats running up the legislative score even though it will help their political fortunes down the road. “As long the Democratic majority brings up votes on social issues that they’ve been advancing for years,” Republican state Sen. Phil Boyle said, “I don’t see any major battles. However, once they start over-spending and raising taxes, that’s when you’re going to see the Republican conference unified in opposition.”

Republicans have not agreed as a conference to uniformly oppose some pieces of legislation but not others, according to state Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a Republican from western New York. “Some of our constituents are different and their representatives feel different,” he said. “And it’s completely respected in the conference there’s never any pressure for you to go one way or another.”

But whether they have discussed this as a conference or just coincidentally all share conservative positions on abortion and immigration – or fear their base’s wrath on those more than on some other subjects – GOP senators are uniformly voting against expansion of abortion rights or pro-immigration measures. Besides the RHA, Republicans have also remained unified on the state-level DREAM Act.

While the New York GOP shows vestiges of its moderate past in supplying votes for bills on LGBTQ rights, for example, the days of pro-abortion rights and pro-immigration Republicans – a group that includes the last Republican governor, George Pataki, and every Republican mayor of New York City in recent memory – are apparently over. The official GOP line against the New York DREAM Act – which would allow undocumented college students to access in-state tuition and financial aid at public colleges – is that it is not worth the cost to taxpayers.

The notion that progressive bills would lead to increased spending or unfunded mandates on local governments has also inspired some of the GOP opposition to other bills like voting reforms such as early voting and the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds. But these arguments have not been enough to prevent widespread GOP defections in the Democrats’ favor. However, more Republicans might stick with the party line on more contentious issues like congestion pricing, a payroll tax to fund the MTA, and “without a doubt” any attempt to implement single-payer health care, said Boyle.

For now, Democratic bills are giving Republicans an opportunity to tout their pragmatism and willingness to work with Democrats, qualities with an obvious appeal to lawmakers hailing from increasingly purple swing districts. State Sen. Robert Antonacci narrowly won election by 2 points last year, and has crossed the aisle on several bills, such as the ban on gay conversion therapy.

With multiple Republican losses on Long Island last year, it is likewise unsurprising that state Sen. Kenneth LaValle, like Boyle, would appeal to the center by supporting Democrats’ voting reforms. Meanwhile, some Republicans like state Sen. Fred Akshar – who faced no opponent in the 2018 election – show that GOP lawmakers are sometimes voting in favor of Democrats legislation without any political threat. “Sen. (Rich Funke) believes in bipartisanship where possible and working together to get things done for the good of the state,” said Matthew Nelligan, a spokesman for a Rochester-area Republican who was not seriously threatened in the 2018 elections. “When he thinks a bill goes too far-such, as the (Reproductive Health Act) or the Dream Act, he votes no. When he believes that a concept has merit for his constituents, such as early voting, he votes yes.”

Supporting popular proposals like voting reforms and civil rights helps Republicans appeal to constituents in the center, said Bruce Gyory, an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany. But they also have to avoid needlessly upsetting conservatives on issues that animate them. Stirring the political pot in the wrong way on an issue like abortion could easily lead to a primary challenge or conservative third party opponent in the next election, which Republican senators obviously want to avoid.

The state Conservative Party, which often cross-endorses Republicans while pushing them to adopt their policy positions, is particularly opposed to abortion rights. “That is the line in the sand issue for them,” Gyory said of the third party. “The vise (Republicans are) caught in is how can they get candidates through primaries that also can win general elections and the space between these two ends of the vice have become narrowed” because the state continues to move towards the Democrats.

Judging by how they have chosen to vote with Democrats, it appears that Republican senators have largely been left to themselves to choose when to support the Democrats bills. But the return of state Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan could change that dynamic. Monday was his first day back at the Capitol following treatment for alcoholism. While his return could inspire Republicans to unite more in opposition to the Democrats’ agenda, it remains to be seen how he will be able to figure out a way forward for the party.

Democrats could become divided over hot-button issues like congestion pricing, education funding or health care, but all signs point to them continuing to pass legislation on social issues with some Republican support. Republicans have tried to present themselves as the defenders of upstate voters against a downstate-heavy Democratic state Senate majority, but they will have to do so in a way that attracts the suburban voters who will determine whether or not Republicans have a chance of taking back the Senate before Democrats relegate them to a permanent minority through redistricting that will follow the 2020 elections.

Siding with the Democrats on many issues might be the best strategy some Republicans have to woo these voters, so long as Republican senators know the right battles to pick – and the ones to avoid. “Trying to keep gay conversion therapy in place is not something that you can win on in anything other than a bedrock Republican district with a large rural base,” Gyory said. “Most of upstate is a suburban, not a rural vote.”