Campaigns & Elections

Democrats’ special night

The party overperformed in red Assembly districts.

In a promising sign for their hopes of taking control of the state Legislature and winning more House seats in the fall, Democrats exceeded expectations across the state in Tuesday’s special elections.

As polls closed, all eyes were on the race for a vacant state Senate seat in Westchester County. That contest resolved relatively early, with Democratic Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer declaring victory by 10 p.m. against Republican Julie Killian. Mayer garnered 58 percent of the vote, compared to Killian’s 42 percent, in a race that many pundits had considered a nail-biter.

Even though the 37th state Senate District remained in Democratic hands, Mayer’s margin of victory was significant. In 2016, Killian garnered 45 percent of the vote when she ran against then-state Sen. George Latimer. Normally, one might expect the Republican challenger to perform better in a low-turnout special election for an open seat.

Meanwhile, three Assembly races in Republican strongholds were far closer than had been expected. Former Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern became the first Democrat elected to the 10th Assembly District in four decades. Even the extremely narrow likely losses by upstate Democrats Aidan O’Connor in the 102nd Assembly District and Cynthia Doran in the 107th Assembly District were strong showings for the Democratic Party.

Democrats in these three Assembly districts performed much better than the party’s previous candidates, possibly portending a “blue wave” that could sweep state and federal offices in November.

Stern won a district that encompasses part of Suffolk County on Long Island, and was previously held by Republican Chad Lupinacci, who vacated his seat to become Huntington supervisor. Stern garnered 59 percent of the vote against Republican Janet Smitelli. Two years ago, Lupinacci received nearly 58 percent of the vote over his Democratic opponent’s 42 percent. Stern improved the Democrats’ performance by 17 percentage points.

The 10th Assembly District supported Trump with 51.5 percent of the vote in 2016. Stern outperformed Clinton in Suffolk County by roughly 15 percentage points.

Republican Chris Tague expressed confidence in his victory in the 102nd Assembly District after receiving nearly 46 percent of the vote, but the Democrat, O’Connor, who garnered 44 percent of the vote, had not yet conceded. Independent candidate Wes Laraway also received around 10 percent of the vote. In 2014 and 2016, Republican Peter Lopez, who left the Assembly to become a regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, ran uncontested. The last time he faced an opponent was in 2012, whom he defeated by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. O’Connor improved upon the Democrats’ 2012 performance by 10 percentage points.

The 102nd Assembly District includes parts of Albany, Schoharie, Columbia, Delaware, Greene, Otsego, and Ulster counties. Albany, Columbia, and Ulster each supported Clinton, but the remaining counties supported Trump. O’Connor outperformed Clinton’s 2016 vote totals in those Trump counties.

Doran’s close loss in the 107th Assembly District with 49 percent of the vote was similarly unusual. As of Wednesday morning, she had not conceded to Republican Jake Ashby, although he held a 280-vote lead in Election Day ballots. Even if the 923 absentee ballots do not overcome that margin, Doran far outperformed previous Democratic candidates.

In 2016, then-Assemblyman Steven McLaughlin, who vacated his seat to become Rensselaer County executive, ran uncontested. In 2014, McLaughlin defeated Democrat Philip Malone with 67 percent of the vote. Doran improved upon Malone’s performance by 16 percentage points.

Eight years after McLaughlin was swept to victory in the Republican wave that took control of statehouses across the country and the U.S. House of Representatives, his seat was once again in play for Democrats.

The 107th Assembly District encompasses parts of Columbia, Rensselaer and Washington counties, the latter two supporting Trump in 2016. Doran outperformed Clinton in all three counties.

Democrats lost in the 5th and 17th Assembly Districts by similar margins to 2016. However, in general, a pattern of Democratic success is emerging. In special elections for House and Senate races across the country since Trump took office, Democrats have performed better than expected in Republican districts, even when losing.

Partisans eagerly anticipating a blue wave in November may have reason to feel heartened, while state Republicans should recognize that now is not the time to get complacent – especially in districts that were thought to be safe.