The C&S Political Report: The Showdown for the New York State Senate

The C&S Political Report: The Showdown for the New York State Senate

The C&S Political Report: The Showdown for the New York State Senate
October 29, 2014

With less than a week to go until Election Day, the New York State Senate is up for grabs.

After several scandals, a primary upset and a handful of surprising poll results, the number of toss-up races has dwindled. In City & State’s latest analysis, there are 29 state Senate seats that either are either leaning, likely or safely Republican, the same count as the Democrats’ tally. The Republicans would have to win three of the toss-up seats (or two and successfully woo to their column state Sen. Simcha Felder, the wild card Democrat now caucusing with the Republicans) to get to a 32-seat majority; the Democrats would have to do the same.

For months, the landscape seemed to be less muddled. Early this year, the Republicans appeared poised to retain control of the state Senate, thanks to their two-year partnership with the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference.

However, in June the IDC announced a split with the Republicans and a reconciliation with the mainline Democrats, suddenly putting the new coalition in what seemed to be a strong position to seize the majority in November. The decision by two Republican state senators, George Maziarz and Greg Ball, to drop out in the wake of campaign finance irregularities made the Democrats’ odds even better. Then, in the September primary, the GOP took another hit when Republican state Sen. Mark Grisanti lost his primary in Western New York, and he decided to continue running on the Independence Party line, a move that could divide the GOP in the general election and tip the seat to the Democrats.

But just when the Republicans’ chances looked bleakest, the tide started turning back their way. David Denenberg, a Nassau County legislator, had a shot at flipping a Senate seat to the Democrats but dropped out of the race in late September after being hit by fraud allegations. Next, in early October, the Siena Research Institute released five polls in battleground state Senate races, and in each one the Republican candidate held at least a double-digit lead over the Democrat. Three first-term Democratic incumbents—Cecilia Tkaczyk, Terry Gipson and Ted O’Brien—suddenly appeared to be more vulnerable than expected, while two contested Long Island seats looked to be safely Republican.

Now either major party has a tough but plausible path to victory. For the Democrats, one potential winning combination is Tkaczyk and Gipson holding on, and either stealing Grisanti’s seat or persuading Felder to return to the fold. If the Republicans knock out O’Brien, fend off a challenge to state Sen. Jack Martins, hold on to the seat state Sen. Lee Zeldin is vacating—all entirely likely possibilities—they will still have to win three of the remaining toss-up races, which would be no small feat.

Republicans continue to insist that the political winds are at their back. Six years into the Obama presidency, Republicans are poised to make significant gains in Washington, possibly even seizing the U.S. Senate, and the national anti-Democratic sentiment could resonate locally.

In New York, having Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the top of the ticket could help Democrats, but his popularity has eroded in some corners of the state, in part because of the passage of the SAFE Act, his landmark gun control legislation. Rob Astorino, Cuomo’s Republican challenger, is trailing significantly in the polls and in fundraising, but some experts argue that he will help Republican Senate candidates more than Carl Paladino did as the party’s nominee four years ago.

Historical trends also favor the GOP. Presidential elections typically boost turnout, which in turn boosts Democratic candidates in New York, and in 2008 and 2012 Barack Obama helped Democrats surge to numerical majorities in the state Senate. But the advantage swings back the other way in non-presidential years, which could help Republicans this cycle.

“Looking at the individual races and the candidates and movement in the nation and the state, I think [Republicans] have been well-positioned all along, and I think the polls just have reflected what happened, not just recently but for some time now,” said John McArdle, a consultant and former spokesman for the Senate Republicans. “I think that trend will continue, and I’m a believer that [Senate Republican Leader] Dean Skelos can pull it off and get a clean majority, which is 32 votes, following Tuesday’s election.”

Democrats counter that an unprecedented coalition supporting their efforts will be the difference maker. As part of a deal to land the Working Families Party line, Cuomo joined forces with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and a number of organized labor groups to commit to winning a Democratic majority in the state Senate, with a $10 million target to fund the campaign.

As for the sizable Republican leads in the Siena polls, Democrats say there is still time to gain ground. Only this month has the party ratcheted up its spending, and having a larger campaign war chest this year could make the difference for the Democrats.

“I think you really have to tip your hat to the sagacity of the Senate Republican tacticians for spending early, because they changed the karma of this, where they were perceived as being on the defensive,” said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic consultant, adding that he expected Democratic candidates to close the gaps.

Of course, Albany being Albany, there is no guarantee that control of the upper chamber will be decided on Election Day. From the Four Amigos to the IDC, there is ample precedent for dealmaking and aisle jumping after the votes are in. If there is only a narrow majority, Felder could be the kingmaker. Others could shift their allegiances as well. Looking even further ahead, the possibility of felony convictions—both Republican state Sen. Tom Libous and Democratic state Sen. John Sampson are under indictment—could throw another wrench in the works, potentially leading to a stalemate.

To bring some clarity to all this uncertainty, City & State updated its rundown of the key state Senate races that will determine the balance of power on Election Day.

Safe Republican

  • John Bonacic
  • Philip Boyle
  • John DeFrancisco
  • Hugh Farley
  • John Flanagan
  • Patrick Gallivan
  • Joseph Griffo
  • Andrew Lanza
  • William Larkin
  • Kenneth LaValle
  • Elizabeth Little
  • Kathleen Marchione
  • Michael Nozzolio
  • Thomas O'Mara
  • Michael Ranzenhofer
  • Patty Ritchie
  • Joseph Robach
  • James Seward
  • Dean Skelos
  • Catharine Young
  • 8th Senate District (Open)

Likely Republican


Marcellino faces an unusual challenge from a fellow Republican in the general election. Sea Cliff Mayor Bruce Kennedy switched parties to run against Marcellino as a Democrat, although the party’s resources are likely going elsewhere on Long Island as Democrats try to pick up a seat or two in other districts in the Republican stronghold. Marcellino was re-elected with nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2012, and he has over a quarter of a million dollars in campaign funds compared with about $73,000 in Kennedy’s account.


Libous’ seat was considered safe until the No. 2 Senate Republican was indicted on federal charges of lying to the F.B.I. related to him allegedly helping his son, Matthew, who was also indicted, land a lucrative law firm job. Libous, who denies any wrongdoing, easily fended off a primary challenge and now faces a general election battle against Anndrea Starzak, a former Vestal town supervisor. However, the district is solidly Republican, the longtime incumbent has been popular with his Binghamton area constituents, and he has a significant fundraising advantage.


If Democrats were polling better in the handful of toss-up state Senate races, Golden would be a target. But with polls showing tough battles for three first-term Democrats, Bay Ridge Democrats Executive Director James Kemmerer will not be a top priority for a potential pick-up as he seeks to topple Golden.

Golden, one of the few Republicans in elected office in New York City, also picked up the endorsement of 1199 SEIU, despite the union’s commitment to securing a Democratic majority. The Brooklyn lawmaker, who beat his Democratic opponent in 2012 with 57.7 percent of the vote, had $339,000 on hand in his latest filing, while Kemmerer had just under $7,000.

Lean Republican


State Sen. George Maziarz’s seat became competitive when the No. 3 Republican announced he would not seek re-election amid a federal probe into his campaign spending. (Maziarz denies any connection between his decision not to run and the investigation.) North Tonawanda Mayor Robert Ortt (pictured above), a military veteran, took Maziarz’s place on the ballot, and will face off against Niagara Falls School Board Member Johnny Destino, a Republican turned Democrat who was trounced by Maziarz in 2012. The district has a slight Democratic edge among active voters, but Ortt could overcome that disadvantage with the addition of the Conservative and Independence party lines and his fundraising advantage.


In a Siena poll released earlier this month, state Sen. Ted O’Brien was trailing 25 points behind Republican Rich Funke, a retired television newscaster in Rochester with strong name recognition. Democrats question the poll’s accuracy, especially after Siena’s miss in the Rochester mayor’s race last year. In 2012 O’Brien came from behind to beat former Republican assemblyman Sean Hanna with 52 percent of the vote, although he has far more ground to cover this time around. Funke has been spending more, but O’Brien is within range on the campaign finance front—especially with some outside help from outside groups wading into the race with independenet expenditures. O’Brien has also landed Gov. Cuomo’s support, which might give him a nice bump.


If the polls are to be trusted, state Sen. Jack Martins has a sizable lead over his Democratic challenger, businessman Adam Haber. Earlier this month a Siena poll had the incumbent up 25 points, while a second poll in late October showed Martins with a smaller but still substantial 15-point lead. Martins, who won re-election in 2012 with 51.8 percent of the vote, has about a quarter of a million dollars in campaign funds. Haber, who has been able to partially self-fund his campaign, has been spending at a similar pace.


Hannon, a longtime incumbent who won with 52 percent of the vote in 2012, is among the Long Island lawmakers in recent cycles to be consistently targeted by Democrats, who see an opportunity to capitalize on the changing demographics of his district. But Hannon has nearly $350,000 on hand and has been outspending his Democratic foe, lawyer and former Marine Ethan Irwin, who has about $50,000 in the bank.


The open seat being vacated by Republican state Sen. Lee Zeldin in Suffolk County was originally a toss-up, and Democrats were on the offensive after pressuring the GOP’s first choice, Anthony Senft, to drop out. But Senft’s replacement, Islip Town Supervisor Tom Croci (pictured), had a commanding 27-point lead in a Siena poll earlier this month, and a more recent poll had him up 25 points. Polling showed Democrat Adrienne Esposito, an environmentalist, with plenty of ground to gain, especially in terms of name recognition. Esposito did land an endorsement by Cuomo, who is popular in the district.



Terry Gipson is down 12 points to Republican Sue Serino, according to a Siena poll released early this month, although Democrats are bullish on Gipson, given his strong fundraising and the many hours he has spent on the campaign trail. Gipson was one of several Democrats to win a close contest in 2012, coming out on top in a three-way race with just 43.8 percent of the vote. Now Republicans are eager to win back the seat, and they have coalesced around Serino, a county legislator. Both candidates have been spending heavily in the race, and outside expenditures could play a significant role, too. Cuomo also endorsed Gipson this month.


State Sen. Greg Ball’s decision earlier this year not to run for re-election makes this Hudson Valley contest a toss-up, and the lack of any public polling so far makes it a major question mark. In 2012 Ball beat Democrat Justin Wagner (pictured) with just 51 percent of the vote, and Wagner has been working hard to win this time around. The Democrat has been outspending his Republican rival, Yorktown Councilman Terrence Murphy, in recent weeks, although outside expenditures are likely to have an impact in this race as well.


Despite his controversial vote for same-sex marriage, Grisanti pulled off a re-election win in 2012 with 50.2 percent of the vote in a three-way race against a Democrat and a Conservative Party candidate. This year Grisanti lost the Republican primary to attorney Kevin Stocker, but is staying in the race with a long-shot bid on the Independence Party line. Add in Conservative Party candidate Tim Gallagher, and the crowded race could end up favoring Democrat Marc Panepinto, the one clear liberal in the mix. Of course, Grisanti has some advantages—Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos endorsed him, and Cuomo has not ruled out following suit—while Panepinto has been dogged by a conviction for collecting fraudulent voter signatures over a decade ago.


After two court rulings and a recount, Tkaczyk beat then Assemblyman George Amedore by just 18 votes in a surprise come-from-behind victory in 2012. Their rematch this year could be just as close, although a Siena poll had Amedore up 10 points in early October. Amedore has been outspending Tkaczyk, and groups like REBNY are bolstering his efforts. But Tkaczyk, who eked out a win in 2012 thanks in part to a Jonathan Soros-backed super PAC, is getting support from the same group again this year. Cuomo recently endorsed Tkaczyk, although it’s unclear how much it will help given his unpopularity in the district.

Likely Democrat


Addabbo held on to his Queens district with a surprisingly large 57.6 percent share of the vote in 2012 after a spirited challenge from Republican Eric Ulrich, who has since been re-elected to the New York City Council. The Senate Republicans’ candidate this year is Michael Conigliaro, the manager of a real estate law firm, but he has little name recognition and trails the incumbent on the fundraising front.


Latimer gave up his Assembly seat to run for the state Senate in 2012 and beat Republican businessman Bob Cohen in a closely watched race with a comfortable 54.1 percent of the vote. Cohen declined to run again this year, and former Yonkers mayor John Spencer also was recruited by the GOP but ultimately took a pass. Local Republicans scrambled at the last minute to recruit Joseph Dillon, a communications and political consultant. Dillon has reported spending a similar amount as Latimer so far, but lacks the incumbent’s name recognition.

Safe Democrat

  • Neil Breslin
  • Rubén Díaz Sr.
  • Martin Malavé Dilan
  • Adriano Espaillat
  • Michael Gianaris
  • Ruth Hassell-Thompson
  • Brad Hoylman
  • Timothy Kennedy
  • Liz Krueger
  • Velmanette Montgomery
  • Kevin Parker
  • Jose Peralta
  • Bill Perkins
  • Gustavo Rivera
  • John Sampson
  • James Sanders
  • Jose M. Serrano
  • Daniel Squadron
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Toby Ann Stavisky
  • Andrea Stewart-Cousins
  • Tony Avella (IDC)
  • David Carlucci (IDC)
  • Jeffrey Klein (IDC)
  • Diane Savino (IDC)
  • David Valesky (IDC)
  • 20th Senate District (OPEN)

Wild Card


The Brooklyn Democrat defected to the GOP shortly after getting elected in 2012. He is guaranteed to win re-election this year, given that he is running unopposed, although it is widely assumed that he will join whichever conference gives him more power—and he himself has said that he will do whatever is best for his constituents. Since it’s a toss-up as to whether Republicans and Democrats will take control, look for Felder to determine what’s best for himself and his district after Election Day.

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