Senate Republicans battling enrollment disadvantage

ALBANY – The last two times Republican lost control of the state Senate, on paper, were in 2008 and 2012.

The similarity? They were both presidential election years.

Now, clinging to its last vestige of power in New York, Senate Republicans are once again trying to defy math as they head into the Nov. 8 elections in a presidential year.

The state’s enrollment continues to dog them: The state has twice as many enrolled Democrats than Republicans.

In fact, just 14 of the 63 state Senate seats have Republican-enrollment advantages.

Also, 28 Senate districts have more unaffiliated voters than Republican ones, a review of enrollment records by the USA Today Network’s Albany Bureau found.

That said, Republicans control 31 of the seats, and an alliance with the growing Independent Democratic Conference could keep the GOP in control next year – whatever the election outcomes may be.

Issues critical to New Yorkers are at stake: Economic-development initiatives, social reforms and campaign-finance laws all hang in the balance going into Election Day.

“I think we’ve proven our mettle. We’ve proven our record,” said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County. “We must be doing something right because we are still in the majority.”

But Republicans’ wherewithal will be put to the test, and the power of incumbency will be put on display.

In 2012, Senate Republicans were able to draw new district lines that were they best shot at trying to carve out seats with as many Republicans as possible.

Yet they still lost the majority on paper. Only the GOP’s alliance with the IDC kept them in control.

Republicans regained the majority at the ballot box in 2014.

Because of Republicans’ power in Albany, they are still able to raise money from special interests to fund campaigns.

The party had about $3 million in the bank last month compared to $1 million for Democrats.

“From the Senate Republican side, they have to continually figure out new and innovative ways to re-engineer the legislative districts so they have a shot at keeping the house,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Changing dynamics

In the mid-1990s, Republicans controlled as many as 38 seats in the Senate, giving them a formidable majority during Republican George Pataki’s tenure as governor.

But the number of GOP-controlled Senate seats have dwindled since.

Democrats have made enrollment gains in the Hudson Valley, Long Island and western New York, infringing on what was traditional Republican strongholds.

And it’s made those areas the battlegrounds for control of the chamber.

For example, Republicans outnumbers Democrats in Dutchess County by about 10,000 in 2000. Now it’s flipped.

In 2000, Monroe County had about the same number of Democrats as Republicans. Now, there’s nearly 50,000 more Democrats than Republican voters.

In 2008, when turnout jumped in New York because of President Obama’s election, Senate Democrats were carried into the majority for the first time in more than 40 years.

But Democrats’ power was short lived: A legislative coup in 2009, as well as series of scandals, led Republicans to retake the majority two years later.

The turmoil also helped spawn the Senate Independent Democratic Conference, which is now five members and aligned with the Senate Republicans.

Republicans also have Democratic Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn who sits with them, giving them a 32-seat majority heading into the November elections.

Even with the various alliances, Democrats said they believe they are poised to win the majority.

“All the indicators are pointing in our direction,” said Sen. Mike Gianaris, D-Queens, who heads the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

“We have a presidential year where the margin between the candidates is as large as it’s ever been, at least in New York anyway.”

The disparities are clearer in the state Assembly: Democrat control 105 seats in the Assembly, while Republicans have 43.

Enrollment differences

With Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, Republicans hope the home-state candidate will do better than Republicans have done in recent presidential elections – even with Chappaqua’s Hillary Clinton leading the Democratic ticket.

If nothing else, they predict turnout being lower than it had been for Obama in 2008 and 2012, when turnout approached 60 percent.

“With Trump on the top of the ticket, it’s actually helpful in many of the seats that we run in, and frankly Clinton’s numbers are horrible,” said Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean, Cattaraugus County. “She is deeply unpopular.”

Maybe in some districts, but not statewide. Polls have shown Clinton beating Trump by as many as 30 percentage points in some New York polls – although Trump fared better in upstate.

Nonetheless, turnout will be higher than in a non-presidential year, adding to the challenge for Republicans in some districts.

For example, two key Hudson Valley seats are true swing districts.

Sen. Sue Serino, R-Hyde Park, Dutchess County, is seeking in a re-election in a rematch against Democrat Terry Gipson in a district with nearly 10,000 more Democrats than Republicans.

The district, which stretches across Dutchess and Putnam counties, also has 49,000 voters not enrolled in any party – which is merely 3,000 less than the number of enrolled Republicans.

There’s a similar split in the neighboring race: Sen. Terrence Murphy, R-Yorktown, is seeking a second term against Democrat Alison Boak in a district that runs through northern Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties.

But Republicans continue to stave off enrollment disadvantages.

In Rochester, for example, Sen. Joseph Robach, a Democrat-turned Republican, has beaten back numerous serious attempts by Democrats to beat him.

There’s a reason why his race appears ripe for Democratic control, at least on paper: The district has 23,000 more Democrats than Republicans – one of the largest disparity for a sitting GOP senator.

But Robach has cruised in recent elections and faces Democrat Ann Lewis in November. The race is not viewed as a key one for control of the Senate.

To view your county’s enrollment by county, visit our database at:


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