By Bruce N. Gyory | October 16, 2018

No one knows for sure if the Democrats’ Blue Wave will land in New York State on November 6th. But if it were to land, here are the three things we do know about partisan waves.

One, they are driven by a comparative turnout advantage, for one party over the other. Two, that turnout advantage is accentuated by a surge in the support levels from independent voters. And three, these waves produce surprises, overcoming the supposed advantages of incumbency and political traditions, (e.g., Democrat Tom Downey winning a House race in Suffolk in a supposedly safe Republican District in 1974’s backlash to Watergate).

Let’s see if we can glimpse some of the potential this year for wave based upsets. In congressional races the two main battlegrounds are upstate, in the Brindisi-Tenney and Faso-Delgado contests. Delgado’s aggressive challenge to Faso in the 19th CD (centered in the suburbs and exurbs to the South, North and West of the Capital District), is complicated by independent candidates draining Delgado from the left and center of the Democratic coalition. Consequently, the Democrat’s best chance for a pick up lies in the 22nd CD, against Claudia Tenney.

On paper this sprawling Central New York district (stretching from Utica’s Oneida County to Binghamton’s Broome County through farm country) which has a decided Republican registration advantage (30,000 voters), does not look like an inviting target for Democrats. But two factors inure to the benefit of Democrats.

First, Anthony Brindisi (the Democratic candidate) has proven to be a dogged and disciplined candidate, beating Claudia Tenney, the Republican incumbent, to the punch at every turn from generating issue based press coverage, to social networking and fundraising. Second, as the pressure has built up against Tenney, she has been gaffe prone.

The latest mistake was simply inexplicable, for Tenney’s campaign leaked an unsubstantiated attack memo on Brindisi’s family, blatantly playing to mob based anti-Italian American stereotypes. Playing to the toxicity of attacks on race, religion and ethnicity is always despicable and should be unacceptable. So when Tenney’s campaign dumped this poisonous attack, it produced an immediate backlash. It is worth remembering that Italian-Americans are the district’s largest ethnic bloc, especially in Oneida County. Most importantly, Italian-American voters are at once a core part of the Republican base and a large chunk of the district’s swing voters. To paraphrase Talleyrand, Tenney’s tactic was worse than a slime, it was a blunder.

Meanwhile, Tenney as a Trump favorite (she not only continually tweets praise for Trump, but she was one of the few New Yorkers to vote with Trump on both health care and the tax bill), will likely continue to enjoy support from the GOP’s national PAC’s. Therefore, could Tenney’s real need for outside help to stay afloat, given her campaign’s multiple deficiencies and errors, lead to openings for Democrats in other House races, by draining precious resources?

The race that shows the most potential in NYS for an upset is all the way out to Suffolk’s Montauk Point, the 1st CD. Coming out of his first re-election in 2016 the incumbent Republican, Lee Zeldin had carved out a unique political profile: a respected veteran and committed conservative, who was attentive on local environmental issues (e.g., protecting Plum Island).

All of that, led to Zeldin winning re-election by 16 percentage points last time, while building up a positive over negative in job approval ratings in the 18-20 percentage point range.

Pundits presumed those same factors would remain in places this year. But Global Strategy took a poll conducted for Taking Action Suffolk County (a Democratic Super pac), finding that Zeldin’s job approval rating had melted to only 3 percent positive over negative.

Lurking in the background of this race, is that over the last two years Zeldin’s profile had morphed from being perceived as a plucky veteran fighting hard for Long Island, into that of a Trump acolyte (i.e., due to Zeldin’s endless surrogate TV interviews on every cable news channel).

The Democrat, Perry Gershon won an upset victory in the Democratic primary, but quickly established party unity. Moreover, Gershon, has become a fundraising juggernaut (raising $1.5 million in the last quarter following the primary).

I think Zeldin is still in the lead, and have little doubt that most of the likely voter public polling will lag in picking up the real tightening in this race, but Zeldin’s positioning is all wrong for a district which today holds choppy waters for both sides, with no partisan tide. Ironically, those are the very same political seas which enabled Zeldin to upset Democrat Tim Bishop, when Zeldin first won the seat back in 2014.

Consequently, if you are looking for a potential upset in the House races, keep your eyes peeled on the contest in NY1 between Lee Zeldin and Perry Gershon.

In the State Senate races, let me begin with a caveat. Democrats should not presume that they will win a clear majority of the State Senate. They will have to work hard for that victory, as time and again, the Senate Republicans (and their campaign arm the SRCC) have fought hard and well when their backs are to the wall amidst Democratic landslides (e.g., 1974, 1986, 2006 and 2010).

Coming down the home stretch of this campaign, the Republicans and the Democrats are engaged in virtual trench warfare in five districts. Two are on Long Island: where Democrat James Gaughran is in a rematch against Carl Marcellino in the 5th SD (a north shore Nassau-Suffolk district), which Marcellino won narrowly in 2016; and in the 8th SD site of the Democrats’ surprise 2016 victory by John Brooks (a south shore Nassau-Suffolk district). Brooks has proven to be a feistier candidate than the Republicans expected, but this is a tough district for any Democrat and Gaughran has run a far stronger race this time against Marcellino, in terms of amassing contributions and endorsements. Nevertheless, the Republicans are pressing hard and with significant resources to retain Marcellino and to knock out Brooks.

In NYC, the Democrats have amassed their most substantial challenge ever against Republican Senator Marty Golden. I had initially scoffed at the Democrat Andrew Gounardes chances here, until I saw how hard some key unions were playing against Golden and when I read Golden’s comment in the New York Times, “We have 90 – something – what – odd percent name recognition in this community.”

In reality, most state legislators in downstate New York are known by 40 percent of their district’s voters, and hardworking one’s like Golden hit perhaps 60 percent name recognition, but no state legislator has 90 percent name recognition in an energized electorate. If Golden runs his campaign on that misperception, that he is known by 90 percent of the district’s voters, given the Democrats’ registration advantage (77,594 Democrats to 33,621 Republicans), Golden will be more vulnerable than I had first thought.

Then in two Hudson Valley districts, longtime Republican incumbents Senators’ Bill Larkin and John Bonacic retired and both seats are hotly contested. The Democrats seem to be confident about James Skoufis over Republican Tom Basile in Larkin’s seat, while the Republicans are pleased with Orange County Clerk and former Assemblywoman Annie Rabbit’s campaign against Democrat Jen Metzger for Bonacic’s seat.

It is precisely because of these de facto Maginot lines along each of these 5 districts, with uncertain outcomes for each seat, that we should keep our eyes peeled for upsets in the less fortified districts.

On Long Island, the Democrats are trying to catch the Republicans sleeping in Elaine Phillips’ Nassau County seat (good political demographics for the Democrats, but the Republican Senator Phillips is a hardworking and engaging candidate). In Suffolk County, the Democrats hope to produce a surprise both in the open Croci seat and against Senator Phil Boyle. All three of these LI seats will bear watching in case lighting strikes partisan kindling for any of these Democratic challenges.

I had thought the open Marchione seat upstate (the 43rd SD is centered in the northern suburbs of the Capital District and the exurbs to the south in Columbia County) might become an opening for a promising Democratic candidate, Army veteran Aaron Gladd. However, the Republicans have mounted a robust TV ad campaign presenting their candidate Daphne Jordan as an effective problem solver. Gladd has not had the financial resources to respond with his own TV adds. This district is an example of how effective the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, the SRCC, has been when the pressure is on in tough years.

But there are three State Senate races upstate, that I suggest keeping a sharp eye on, expecting not victories for the Democrats in all three seats, but certainly closer margins than anticipated, with the potential in each for upset victories.

First, John Mannion, Democrat from Onondaga County, has proven to be a resourceful candidate rooted in the classrooms and ball fields of Onondaga’s schools where he is a teacher. Mannion is opposing the Republican Onondaga County Comptroller Bob Antonacci, in the seat opened up by the retirement of Senator DeFrancisco. Mannion’s strong support from NYSUT, provides him with the ballast for getting within striking distance of Antonacci, who should still be rated the favorite in this seat long held by the Republicans.

The second seat to watch is the George Amedore seat. Senator Amedore (Republican from Rotterdam), seemed firmly secure for re-election having won strong victories in both 2014 and 2016 after losing by 18 votes in 2012 to Cece Tkaczyk. This district is like Casear’s Gaul divided into three portions: a Democratic base to the south in Ulster County, a swing portion in Guilderland, an Albany suburb trending Democratic, with a strong Republican base in the Mohawk Valley in the western end of the district.

Pat Strong, the Democratic candidate, comes from Ulster County, where Democratic turnout has been growing and is likely to be energized by the overlapping Delgado race against Faso. The question becomes can Pat Strong scratch together the resources to reach voters in Guilderland’s suburbs, while shaving a couple points off of Amedore’s edge in Schenectady and Montgomery counties. She is a polished green business executive, who is a central casting candidate for connecting with Guilderland’s suburban voters.

Seasoned handicappers are heavily weighting Amedore’s landslide margins in 2014 and 2016, but I am not discounting the distinct chance that Strong has for whittling down Amedore’s expected victory margin and perhaps even pulling off an upset.

But it is in a third district, which has the greatest chance for an upset: Democrat Karen Smythe’s challenge to Republican Senator Sue Serino, in the Dutchess County centered 41st State Senate District. On paper this is a Republican seat, which Democrats can win only in a three way split, a la Terry Gipson in 2012.

Meanwhile, even before Trump, the Republicans in this district have long had a split between those candidates with a roughhewn populist conservative approach to politics and those Republicans who run in the Teddy Roosevelt – Nelson Rockefeller tradition. Serino has made no blunders, but she does not automatically bridge the gaps between the blue collar Republican base and that mix of Rockefeller Republicans and independent voters who actually determine winning and losing in the 41st SD.

The Democratic challenger, Karen Smythe is both raising a lot of money and consolidating a basket full of labor, community and women’s group endorsements. Smythe has also worked hard and well at projecting herself as an accomplished and polished business woman and community leader. If Republicans rest upon conventional wisdom, this race could produce an upset victory for Smythe.

This essay has been my attempt to put a spotlight on the potential surprises that can wash across the shore line accompanying a partisan wave. That wave may never come and the upsets that I have flagged may not pan out. Other candidates who hoped to pull off upsets in the House races (e.g., Dana Balter from Syracuse and Tedra Cobb in the North Country) could still have a rabbit in their hat. Certainly predicting the outcome for the indictment embattled Republican Chris Collins in the Western New York race against Democrat Nathan McMurray, in the most Republican district in the state, requires a degree in psychiatry not political science. Furthermore, watch for races where the Democratic candidates end up not winning, but sharply cutting into presumed Republican margins (e.g., Liuba Grechen Shirley against Pete King in the 2nd CD on Long Island).

If the Blue Wave comes there will be upsets, but no one can project with precision or certainty where they will occur.

So my real advice is for everyone to have their binoculars at the ready on election night, for if a Blue Wave does make landfall, one should be sitting on a swivel chair, to spot all the surprises.

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.