Republicans Storm Back to Win Majority in State Senate

Republicans Storm Back to Win Majority in State Senate

Republicans Storm Back to Win Majority in State Senate
November 5, 2014

The Republican Party seized control of the New York State Senate on Tuesday, riding a nationwide GOP wave to win enough seats so it will no longer have to depend on a small group of breakaway Democrats to stay in power.

The lone loss suffered by the GOP was in state Sen. Mark Grisanti’s district in Western New York, but the party held onto the seat being vacated by state Sen. Greg Ball while knocking out three first-term Democrats—Senators Terry Gipson, Cecilia Tkaczyk and Ted O’Brien—to secure a narrow majority.

Although Senate Republicans technically came away from the night holding just 32 seats, giving them a one-member edge in the 63-seat chamber, there is a strong chance that state Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat who has caucused with the Republicans for the past two years, will stay put, raising their total to 33. On Monday, Felder reiterated that he would make a decision on whom to caucus with based on what is best for his constituents.

Once it became clear that Republicans had won a majority of the seats, Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos issued a statement praising his party's candidates while also striking a bipartisan tone, noting that “Democrats and Republicans will both have a say in the decisions that will impact New York's future, and we will all be far better off for it.”

But he took a swipe at politicians in New York City, whose mayor, Bill de Blasio, joined forces with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a number of labor unions this year to publicly commit to securing a Democratic Senate majority at the polls.

“Tonight, New Yorkers have chosen balance and bipartisanship over an entire state government made up of Democrats from New York City, and placed their trust in Republicans to lead the Senate,” Skelos said. “With this comes a responsibility to earn that trust, which we will endeavor to do every single day.”

Over the past two years, the GOP had kept a tenuous hold on its last bastion of statewide political power only through an unprecedented coalition with the Senate Independent Democratic Conference. The five-member IDC, which had pledged earlier this year to reunite with the mainline Democrats, may try to back out of that now that the Republicans have an outright majority.

While the results were still coming in and before the Republicans had won a clear majority, state Sen. Jeff Klein, the IDC leader, said at his Bronx campaign headquarters that he had worked hard to elect more Democrats to the Senate; however, he left open the door for sticking with his current coalition partners.

“When it’s time to govern, I think we have to do what’s right in passing legislation,” said Klein, who touted the state's recent track record of on-time budgets, the passage of the SAFE Act gun control law and expanded universal prekindergarten. “The only thing I will say is I’m very proud of what I was able to accomplish over the last two years. You know, we were able to accomplish a lot.”

Some observers also took aim at Cuomo for not doing more to help Democratic candidates in tight races. The governor had committed to backing Senate Democrats this year as part of a deal to land the Working Families Party line, and he endorsed half a dozen candidates while the state Democratic Party, which he controls, paid for mailers and advertisements in key Senate races. But some critics argued that he took steps that may have actually hurt the effort, such as creating a Women’s Equality Party and urging supporters to vote on the new line.

“Governor Cuomo promised to take back the State Senate,” said Bill Lipton, director of the Working Families Party. “Instead, he squandered millions on a fake party, and left millions more in his campaign account as New York Democrats in the legislature and in Congress withered on the vine. But he couldn't sink WFP and we're not going anywhere, except back to Albany to fight for working families. Our party is needed now more than ever.”

Klein cast blame on the mainline Senate Democrats, saying that their campaigns should have focused more on accomplishments such as the passage of same-sex marriage and stricter gun control than on the failure to pass high-priority measures like the Women’s Equality Act and full-fledged campaign finance reform.

“I think a lot of my Democratic colleagues in these tough races, they would have been much better served if they talked about the accomplishments,” Klein said.

Public polling and a deluge of campaign spending in battleground races had many predicting that several contests would go down to the wire and that recounts and behind-the-scenes deal-making could drag out the process for days or weeks—but the Republicans' dominance appears to have ended such speculation.

The one bright spot for Senate Democrats was attorney Marc Panepinto’s victory in a crowded race in Western New York. Panepinto won just 33.6 percent of the vote, but that was enough to beat Republican Kevin Stocker, incumbent Mark Grisanti, who lost the Republican primary but stayed in the race on the Independence Party line, as well as a fourth candidate, running on the Conservative Party line. 

Otherwise, it was a landslide for Republicans in upstate battleground races. Gipson lost to Dutchess County Legislator Sue Serino by nearly 5 points; O’Brien lost to former TV newscaster Rich Funke by 11 points; and Tkaczyk lost her rematch to former assemblyman George Amedore by 12 points.

And in the contest for the Ball seat, Justin Wagner didn’t have any better luck his second time around, losing to Yorktown Councilman Terrence Murphy by a suprising 15-point margin. Murphy said that the key difference was his experience as an elected official and businessman. He also asserted that voters in his Hudson Valley district were leery of turning over every part of state government to the Democrats, who already occupy the offices of governor, attorney general and comptroller as well as holding a sizeable majority in the Assembly.  

“We’ve had a great night for New York State,” Murphy said. “New York State should be a balance of power. I don’t care what party you are, there should be balance. Having a one-party rule, the last time that happened was in 2009 and 2010, and you had 124 new taxes and a $14 billion increase in spending. We need to make New York a more affordable place, and I plan on doing that.”

Democratic officials had hoped that this year they might even be able to pick up a seat or two on Long Island, but they were beaten handily there too. In the Suffolk County seat being vacated by state Sen. Lee Zeldin (who knocked out Rep. Tim Bishop on Tuesday), Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci garnered 58.4 percent of the vote to beat environmentalist Adrienne Esposito. And in Nassau County, state Sen. Jack Martins beat Democratic challenger Adam Haber with a comfortable margin of nearly 13 points.

Mike Murphy, a Senate Democratic spokesman, said that the conference would continue to push its agenda, including a divisive abortion rights provision in the Women’s Equality Act, during the upcoming legislative session.

“We congratulate the entire Democratic statewide slate and while we are disappointed with the Senate results, we congratulate the Republicans,” Murphy said. “We remain committed to growing our economy, creating more jobs and passing a real minimum wage. We also remain committed to working with the Governor to pass the full Women’s Equality Act.”

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s former editor-in-chief.