Will Trump help or hurt state Senate candidates back home?

lev radin/Shutterstock
Donald Trump speaks during his victory celebration at Trump Tower after the New York primary.

Will Trump help or hurt state Senate candidates back home?

Will Trump help or hurt state Senate candidates back home?
August 15, 2016

Every four years, the presidential race tends to boost Democrats in state Senate districts across New York. In the off years, when turnout is lower, Senate Republicans have bounced back.

But this year is a Trump year – and having the GOP presidential nominee at the top of the ballot is widely expected to be pivotal in the battle for control of the state Senate.

“The most important factor in this (year’s) state Senate races is the performance of Donald Trump,” said Larry Levy, executive dean for the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. “No local or state issue, no personality will have as much impact on the Senate races as how well or poorly Trump does. And if you were in Cleveland, you know that this was big on the minds of Republican leaders and candidates.” 

New York’s political observers closely monitor the state Senate elections that take place every two years since the outcome can determine whether Republicans can keep their grip on the state Legislature’s upper house, the party’s one remaining bastion of statewide influence. Senate Republicans have held power for decades, apart from a brief exile, and have been in control since regaining a majority in the 2010 elections.

This fall, New York Republicans hope that Trump, who won 60 percent of the vote in New York’s Republican presidential primary, will rally the base and help them keep a grip on the state Senate. The Trump campaign has committed to trying to win the state’s 31 electoral votes, even though New York has been solidly Democratic in presidential contests, and the effort could pay dividends down the ballot. In parts of the state like Western New York, Trump has resonated with voters and local leaders alike.

But Trump is such a divisive figure that he could also dampen support. He has dropped in the polls since the party’s nominating conventions concluded last month, and his criticism of the parents of a slain Muslim U.S. soldier and his controversial policy positions and remarks about women and minorities have already spurred defections among fellow Republicans, including New York Rep. Richard Hanna, the first GOP member of the House to publicly break with the party’s standard-bearer.

In New York’s state Senate races, Democrats and Republicans agree that Trump will play a key role – but leaders from each party insist he will help them and hurt their rivals.

“We have great candidates running all around the state in a year with Donald Trump vs. (Democratic presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton on the ticket, and we’re expecting a very lopsided result in New York,” said state Sen. Michael Gianaris, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “There’s no Trump surge that we’re detecting.” 

Gianaris touted the DSCC’s fundraising boost during this year’s election cycle, even though the DSCC has only about $750,000 to the state GOP’s roughly $2.6 million. While Democrats are trailing Republicans, the DSCC had around the same amount in the last cycle while the state GOP had roughly $5 million. Gianaris also argued that state Senate Democrats are in a better position, with 32 registered Democrats in the state Senate, a majority in the 63-seat chamber. Of course, five of them are members of the IDC, the breakaway group that has partnered with Republicans in recent years, and another is state Simcha Felder, a Democrat who has caucused with Republicans since taking office in 2013.

What the Senate looks like now

In April, Democrats picked up a key Long Island seat vacated by former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who was ousted after a corruption conviction. Despite the Democrats securing a numerical majority, Republicans continued to oversee the proceedings during the second half of the state legislative session this year.

Meanwhile, New York Republicans hope Trump’s ability to bring out people who don’t normally vote will be the boost they need to maintain control of the state Senate.

Cathy Young, chairwoman of the New York State Senate Republicans Campaign Committee, argued that the low popularity numbers for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, will bolster state Senate GOP candidates.

“Certainly, we’re aware of the Trump dynamic at the top of the ticket, but in the districts where we run, Hillary Clinton is extremely unpopular in our districts,” Young said. “That’s stabilizing the political environment. So, it’s a situation where our members will be judged on our own merit. For example, our freshmen members are extremely popular and strong and they’re moving forward and doing a great job. That’s why we’re so confident.”

Levy speculated that if Trump ends up within 10 or 12 percentage points of Clinton in the state, he would be a huge asset for New York Republicans. If he doesn’t, he will be a “weight that drags down everyone to the dogcatcher.” A Quinnipiac University poll released July 19 found Clinton leads Trump by 12 percentage points among all New York voters. After several campaignstumbles earlier in the month, Siena College poll released August 15 has Trump trailing Clinton by 30 percentage points.

Republican political consultant John McArdle told City & State that because of this year’s unconventional election, it is difficult to predict how the presidential candidates will impact New York’s elections. Nonetheless, McArdle argued that progressives who supported former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, many of them women and minorities, will not turn out for Clinton given her low popularity and more moderate views.

“I think Trump will help with turnout among voters who may not have been inclined to vote in the past,” McArdle said, “and I think the Democrats, even with the Trump factor and the fact that there are a lot disillusioned with their party’s candidate, I think that could neutralize any advantage that the Democrats have normally had in past years.”

Although there are 63 state Senate districts in New York, Democrats and Republicans will put most of their resources in a small number of races, primarily on Long Island and in the Capital Region.

“When you break it down, it really comes down to ‘ground zero’ being Nassau County and around the Capital District,” said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant.

Political observers are closely watching the seats in Nassau County held by Democratic state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, Republican state Sen. Kemp Hannon, outgoing state Sen. Jack Martins and Republican state Sen. Carl Marcellino, whose district spans Nassau and Suffolk counties. Kaminsky narrowly won his seat in the special election to replace Skelos earlier this year, while Martins is running for Congress. 

“Republican leaders have gone all in (in Suffolk County) because they feel that his base is big enough that they can build off it for their own candidates,” Levy said, referring to Trump. “In Nassau County – which is more Democratic, wealthier and has higher education levels – it’s a little bit more of a crapshoot. Trump is likely to be less of an asset in most of the Nassau Senate races.”

Maintaining control of Martins’ seat will be “challenging” given the higher number of Democratic registered voters, McArdle acknowledged, but he argued that Republicans have a strong candidate in Flower Hill Mayor Elaine Phillips in the race against Democratic candidate Adam Haber.

Republicans express confidence that Hannon and Marcellino will maintain their seats. Hannon has served as a state senator since 1988 and Marcellino since 1995, but Democrats hope that voters critical of Trump could be the push needed to finally oust them. 

“If it turns out when we get into mid-October that Trump, despite his thinking he can carry New York, is nowhere in New York and the Republicans pull out and there’s not a lot of on-the-ground turnout strength, that’s a concern especially given how ill-suited Trump is in helping the Republicans redress the gender gap, racial gap and the climate change gap,” Gyory said.

In the Capital Region, the seats held by Republican state Sens. Sue Serino, George Amedore and Tom O’Mara are also being targeted by Democrats this fall. Amedore’s district has switched parties each cycle since it was created in the last round of redistricting. 

Despite Trump’s polarizing character, both Democratic and Republican insiders named outgoing Democratic state Sen. Marc Panepinto’s open seat as one of the few that will be helped by Trump’s candidacy. Republican candidate Chris Jacobs, the popular Erie County clerk, is widely expected to win the seat.

“(Jacobs) has run well countywide, he’s highly regarded by the editorial pages, he comes from a well-regarded and well-respected family,” Gyory said. “It’s tough for me to not see the Republicans winning that seat back, particularly because that is one of the three metropolitan counties where Trump may run well.”

After the dust settles and either Trump or Clinton begins preparing to move into the White House, another major factor in determining who will hold the majority in the state Senate is who the Independent Democratic Conference aligns with. 

In late 2012, state Senate Democrats lost the majority after the five-member IDC broke from the mainline conference to align with the state Senate Republican conference. Both Gianaris and Young believe the IDC will align with their conferences after the 2016 election. 

How well the Republicans perform on Long Island could affect the IDC’s decision, Gyory said. “Klein has aligned himself with the perception of two relatively moderate suburban Republicans with Skelos and Flanagan,” he said. “Would he have the same comfort level if they lost a couple seats in Nassau and that led to more dominance or even control by the more conservative wing of upstaters in that Republican conference?”

Klein, who supports Clinton, said New York politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, would do well to run on their own records and accomplishments. When asked by City & State, Klein declined to say who his conference will align with after the election.

“I’m someone who’s all about results and all about accomplishing results. You set out a legislative agenda and you accomplish those results, you claim victory and you thank your counterparts for helping you achieve those victories,” Klein said. “At the same time I think everyone, Democrats and Republicans and IDC members, would be very smart to run on their record of achievement and the things we’ve been able to accomplish in the last two years.” 

Klein said he is focusing on getting members of his own conference re-elected and stressed it is “premature” to make any predictions on who will hold the majority after the elections. 

“I’m all about the Independent Democratic Conference. What we propose and what we accomplish,” Klein said. “To make any prediction on which side will have the majority, either Democrats or Republicans, or who the Independent Democratic Conference will partner with is, again, premature.”

Ashley Hupfl