Democrats Still Have Rosy View of State Senate in 2016

Despite crushing losses on Tuesday, State Senate Democrats are hopeful they can retake the majority in 2016.

State Senator Dean Skelos, the Republican majority leader. (Photo:  Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)
State Senator Dean Skelos, the Republican majority leader. (Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images) (Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)

The red tide is high, but it must recede at some point–that’s at least according to some of the New York Democrats swamped on Tuesday.

State Senate Democrats were stunned when Republicans swept almost every competitive race on Election Day, but say there are clear signs that in two years, the GOP majority will crumble.

“It was such a GOP sweep across the nation. It couldn’t get any worse. But in 2016, turnout is going to be much higher, it always is,” an operative working with the Senate Democratic conference said. “The reality is in blue states like New York when turnout is up, people vote and Democrats win.”

Senate Democrats are sticking to that line as they sort through the wreckage of a night that could not have gone more wrong. Incumbent senators like Terry Gipson, Ted O’Brien and Cecilia Tkaczyk were all wiped out. Serious challenges to Long Island Republicans never materialized.

Democrats are counting on a Hillary Clinton presidential bid at the top of the ticket–and a breakaway Independent Democratic Conference returning to the fold if they capture the majority–to buoy their prospects in 2016. Turnout will indeed spike and Democrats enjoy a significant enrollment advantage in the state.

In an open Hudson Valley race between Democrat Justin Wagner and Republican Terrence Murphy, Democrats say anemic turnout in a midterm election can explain how Mr. Wagner, who nearly toppled a Republican incumbent in 2012, lost by about 10 points to Mr. Murphy. Mr. Wagner won 62,325 votes in a year President Obama won big in New York and only 36,079 votes in 2014, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coattails didn’t seem to carry many Democrats. (Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, was criticized for not doing enough to help candidates from his own party.)

The 2012 incumbent, Greg Ball, did win about 20,000 more votes than Mr. Murphy. But Mr. Wagner lost roughly 26,000 votes from two years ago, giving Democrats hope that in swing districts, their base–not as old, not as white–will be more motivated to head to the polls in 2016.

With the IDC’s help, the Democrats only need to flip two seats to have a majority, which is not technically a tall order. Democrats in the House or U.S. Senate can only dream of such an easy road to power. Capturing an unexpected win in Buffalo, where Democrat Marc Panepinto triumphed in a strange four-way race, saved the night from being a complete disaster for Democrats.

There’s also hope that the massive independent expenditures from real estate and charter school interests that buoyed Republicans will be less prevalent in two years, when it will make less sense in the legislative calendar to protect the GOP at all costs.

Rent control laws are set to expire in 2015 and landlords see an opportunity to weaken tenant protections and cut into the city’s rent-regulated housing stock, Democrats argue.

“The spending wasn’t a random occurrence–it was an incredibly important election for them,” explained another Democratic operative. “In this upcoming session, all rent control laws are expiring. A GOP-controlled Senate is much more friendlier to you, they don’t have tenants in their districts and they can pass rent control laws that far outlive their majority.”

“Even if the GOP loses the majority 2016, they can pass a five- or 10-year extension or even two years or four years–it still doesn’t matter because once you lose rent-controlled apartments, they never come back,” the operative said.

Long Island is still territory where the Democrats see possibilities. They were routed in two open races there and suffered after one promising candidate, Dave Denenberg, saw his campaign collapse following an embarrassing lawsuit from his old law firm. As some observers pointed out, Long Island Democrats have a long history of picking poor candidates to challenge entrenched Republicans, even though demographics and party enrollment, at least in Nassau County, have been favoring them.

Some Democrats feel Republican Lee Zeldin’s overwhelming congressional victory in Suffolk County buoyed the Republican running to replace Mr. Zeldin in the State Senate, Tom Croci, and 2016 will give Democrats another viable shot at what will be a one-term incumbent.

The age of the Republican conference also gives Democrats hope–there are many influential members nearing retirement age, like 81-year-old Hugh Farley and 86-year-old William Larkin Jr. Judy Kennedy, the Democratic mayor of Newburgh in Orange County, is one potential candidate to take on Mr. Larkin or, if he steps aside in 2016, the Republican trying to succeed him, sources say.

Republicans, however, were predictably dismissive.

“The Senate Democrats just spent two years saying 2014 was going to be their year, and they lost nearly every competitive race in the state except a 4-way contest in Western New York where their candidate only received 34 percent of the vote,” said a Senate Republican spokesman, referring to Mr. Panepinto’s victory. “It’s time for governing, not politics–which is something the Senate Democrats never understood when they were in the majority. In the meantime, we are very much looking forward to introducing the Senate Democrats to our seven new members.”

And even some Democrats cautioned that riding the coattails of the president wouldn’t be nearly enough to secure a majority.

“Cuomo carried Andrew Lanza’s district, Cuomo carried Marty Golden’s district,” said Jerry Skurnik, a veteran Democratic consultant. He was referring to two winning GOP senators in New York City.

“You can’t count on the top of the Democratic ticket alone. It’s not a sure thing.”

Democrats Still Have Rosy View of State Senate in 2016