Costly battle being waged for state senate majority

The New York state Capitol in Albany

ALBANY -- Millions of dollars are being poured into campaigns for the state Senate as Democrats seek to convert Albany into a town of one-party rule.

Republicans, meanwhile, are digging in for what they say is a battle that will determine whether taxpayers and the upstate region still have an advocate at the statehouse.

Democrats already hold a huge advantage in the Assembly. Since all legislation at the statehouse must be approved by both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governor, a net pickup of just one Senate seat in the 63-seat chamber by Democrats, along with a victory by Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his challengers Tuesday, would leave Republicans without a power base in Albany.

To Cuomo, that's as it should be.

"New York state is the progressive capitol of the United States of America," he said last month after he trounced challenger Cynthia Nixon, an actress and newcomer to electoral politics, in the Democratic primary. He argued Democrats are united by anger and fear over the policies of President Donald Trump, calling them "an affront to all New Yorkers."

Confronted with criticism this year by Nixon and her supporters that he has been too cozy with Albany Republicans, Cuomo adjusted, assuring Democrats he wants his party to take power in the Senate and funneling $2 million to Senate Democratic coffers.

He also withdrew his support for a cadre of breakaway senators, known as the Independent Democratic Conference. Several of its members ended up losing their seats in heated primaries, and the organization has dissolved.

Stalled legislation that could hit the fast track if Democrats take over the Senate include passage of tighter campaign finance rules, including greater controls over money from limited liability corporations, which have exploited loopholes in contribution limits. Ironically, Cuomo has been a big beneficiary of such donations, even while stating he agrees Albany needs to curb them.

The progressive Democrats who toppled the Independent Democratic Conference members have also embraced the Assembly's call for a single-payer health care system in the state, suggesting that legislation could move to the front burner if the GOP loses its grip on the majority.

Cuomo has cautioned it may be more prudent for the federal government to craft a 'Medicare for All" system rather than have New York try to blaze trails.

"This could really put the governor in a complicated position," said Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. "If he does become a presidential candidate (for the 2020 election cycle), it's not clear he would want to run on single payer. It would push the state further to the left, with higher taxes than we already have."

The Senate Democratic wish list also includes an expansion of abortion protections -- a proposal that critics such as the Catholic Conference argue would allow non-doctors to perform abortions -- and a bill designed to allow school administrators to petition judges to remove the guns in homes of troubled students.

Key battleground districts this year are in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island.

A Democratic takeover of the Senate would mean that Republicans who now wield influence by holding leadership roles on committees that oversee key legislation -- lawmakers such as Sens. Jim Seward, R-Milford, Betty Little, R-Queensbury, and Rob Ortt, R-Niagara County -- would have less influence in the statehouse, should they win re-election.

Senate GOP Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, emphasized the stakes with an essay posted on a blog that warned of "Democrat socialist policies like single-payer health care, taxpayer funded heroin injection sites, taxpayer funded campaigns, a Sanctuary State for illegal immigrants who commit aggravated felonies, abolishing ICE, and raising taxes to pay for it all."

With Democratic leaders voicing confidence that they will take control of the Senate in January -- the GOP last lost its grip on power in 2009 and 2010 -- some interest groups, notably the real estate interests among them, have become far more generous with their contributions to Democratic candidates this year. State laws governing rent regulations are slated to be up for renewal before the Legislature in the coming year.

In addition to New York's 63 Senate seats, all 150 Assembly seats are up grabs this year. Lawmakers serve terms of two years. So if Democrats end up on top in January, Republicans will have an opportunity to make another run to win the Senate majority in 2020.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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