How the suburban wave might play into New York’s 2018 races

As the dust settles from Doug Jones’ stunning upset victory in the Alabama Senate race, inquiring minds are wondering just how much the factors in that race and others in 2017 might figure into races in New York State in 2018.

On the surface, there does not presently appear to be much happening in next year’s local state legislative races. You can’t beat somebody with nobody. On the other hand, there are now four potential Democratic challengers to Chris Collins in the mix.

The movement of suburbanites, particularly women, to Democratic candidates has been noted in Alabama, Virginia and several other states that have held special elections. The same trend applies to college-educated voters and those under the age of 45. Support from voters without college degrees for Republican candidates, a significant part of the Trump base, has diminished.

The other general observation from Alabama and Virginia is that Democrats turned out in large numbers, beyond the norm for an off-year election. The Republicans, on the other hand, saw a lot of their voters just stay home. Nate Cohn breaks these things down in greater detail in a New York Times article that you can read here.

Locally this year there was an uptick in suburban voting compared with the turnout in Buffalo. The total Erie County turnout in 2015 was approximately 25 percent. Here are some turnout numbers in the larger suburban towns:

Municipality                       2017 Turnout

Erie County                         38.6%

Buffalo                                 31.3%

Amherst                               39.5%

Clarence                               37%

Hamburg                             46.1%

Lancaster                             39.4%

Orchard Park                      41.2%

Town of Tonawanda         39.2%

West Seneca                        38.6%

It has been suggested that the constitutional convention proposition on the ballot added to the turnout, and it was a factor. But it was pretty clear prior to the election that the result was a foregone conclusion and that the proposition would go down by a large number; it was not a hot topic.

The Trump factor, which is playing out elsewhere, certainly figured in here in 2017. The only way that a Democratic or independent Trump resister or a never-Trump Republican voter had the opportunity to express their political feelings was to vote for local offices. This likely helped lead to much closer contests for the countywide offices than had been anticipated, and it helped turn the County Legislature to Democratic control.

There is an interesting way to determine how to break down party affiliated voting in some elections, something that Joe Crangle suggested to me many years ago.

On the ballot this year were two elections for judge in Erie County: a County Court seat (won by Susan Eagan) and the Surrogate Court seat (won by Acea Mosey). Crangle’s theory goes like this: when you have unopposed judicial seats on the ballot, voters who do turn out have no particular reason to support the unopposed candidate on the line of a party they are not affiliated with. Those voters will naturally gravitate to the party line they are affiliated with or identify with. So, the theory goes, the breakdown of the vote by party in a non-contested judicial election gives us the best view of the strength of turnout among local voters.

Here’s a breakdown of the party line votes by percentages for the judicial races in Erie County in 2017:

Office            D Vote    R Vote    C Vote  WF Vote    Other

County Court 52.7%    29.4%     9.9%     3.9%          4%

Surrogate        52.1%   29.6%      10%      3.9%         4.4%

You’ll notice two things in this chart: (1) the strength of the Democratic vote; and (2) the consistency of the vote by party line.

It is reasonable to conclude that, in 2017, Democrats in Erie County turned out in far larger numbers than the Republicans, and that this led to challengers to incumbent Republican county officeholders doing much better than anticipated. It also contributed to a sweep of town offices in Amherst and the continued control of all town offices in the Town of Tonawanda and various other victories.

Here’s another observation from the 2017 elections: the traditional Republican strategy in Erie County of depressing voter turnout in the City of Buffalo by failing to run candidates in the City could be overcome by growing Democratic affiliations in the large first-ring suburban towns.

There are 104,112 registered Democrats in Buffalo, out of a total party affiliation in Erie County of 285,519. Add up the Democratic voters in Amherst, Cheektowaga, Hamburg, Lancaster, Orchard Park, Tonawanda (Town), and West Seneca and you get a total of 135,503. The affiliation edge for Democrats in these towns has been growing steadily over the past ten years or more.

What this may mean for the future is that, if the Democratic enrollment edge in the suburban towns continues to increase, and the turnout in those areas exceeds the turnout in Buffalo, Democratic county candidates could concentrate on suburban turnout in the first ring towns while continuing to try to figure out a way to juice up turnout in Buffalo. In this quest the Democrats will be indirectly aided by Republicans, because the Reps are certainly not going to cede control of town governments to the Dems without a spirited fight. Spirited fights, in and of themselves, lead to higher voter participation.

What does this mean for 2018?

So it’s time to get out the crystal ball.

As earlier noted in this post and a previous one, there is at the moment no groundswell of potential opponents for local state legislative races. Because of the longer onramp time required in congressional campaigns, plus the fact that congressional nominating petitions hit the streets in March, there are already four identified opponents getting organized to run against Chris Collins.

Mickey Kearns’ former Assembly seat is the only open seat available. Democrats, as was noted in a November 29th post, are moving toward County Legislator Pat Burke for that seat. The Republicans have fewer options unless they revive their endorse-a-Dem strategy.

Following on the observations about who is turning out to vote, it would seem that incumbents such as Assemblyman Ray Walter and Senator Michael Ranzenhofer (whose districts are both centered in Amherst) could be more susceptible to challenges this year. Given his strong support of Donald Trump perhaps Assemblyman David DiPietro could also come under challenge.

Kearns himself will need to deal with the possibility of a larger Democratic turnout in the county and a Trump-induced depressed Republican electorate as he prepares to run for a full four year term in 2018.

In olden days (like perhaps 30-40 years ago), both major parties would never let any seat go uncontested, no matter how difficult the challenge. There is a party-oriented logic to that that made sense in terms of generating turnout and helping out the entire party ticket. Quixotic campaigns are hard to run, given the personal expense and toll that such efforts take. But if there is a serious interest in helping with the program in 2018, the old strategy might once again make sense.

One thought on “How the suburban wave might play into New York’s 2018 races

  1. It is not a bad method for measuring party strength, but by nature of possessing the first line, 2-4% more of the vote is cast on the Dem line. It was the same when Reps had the first line.


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