Written by Thomas Kaplan
November 4, 2012
The fight for control of the New York State Senate has grown unexpectedly competitive in the final moments of this year’s campaign, with Hurricane Sandy adding a large dose of uncertainty to the vote on Tuesday.
All 213 state legislative seats are up for grabs, and the outcome of the Senate races is critical to shaping the balance of power in Albany, where Democrats hold the governor’s office and the Assembly, but have had to compromise or abandon elements of their agenda because Republicans control the State Senate.
Republicans have long been favored to keep control of the Senate, but recent polls have shown Democratic candidates performing well in a number of critical contests.
The fallout from the storm has introduced another variable to the election, threatening to depress turnout in two downstate districts where Republicans had hoped to pick up Senate seats and fortify their majority.
“There’s no precedent; there’s no way to predict,” said Steven A. Greenberg, a pollster at Siena College. “I think that the final outcome for the Senate is very much an open question.”
Both parties believe it may not be possible to determine on election night which party has won control of the chamber. And the presence of a four-member breakaway faction within the Senate Democrats complicates matters further, raising the specter of a leadership dispute akin to the one that roiled Albany after the 2008 elections.
Republicans, who are outnumbered by Democrats in the state’s electorate, hold a 33-to-29 majority in the Senate, and through redistricting that favored their incumbents this year, they added a seat to the Senate.
In their campaigns, Republicans have stressed their economic bona fides, pointing to their work with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, to pass a cap on increases in local property taxes and improve the state’s job climate. They have also drawn attention to the relative tranquillity in the state capital since Republicans regained the majority in the Senate in the 2010 elections.
“I would hope that voters would look at the stability of the last two years and understand that we work better with Andrew Cuomo than the Democrats do,” said State Senator Thomas W. Libous, a Republican from Binghamton and the leader of his party’s campaign efforts.
Mr. Libous said the election was “harder for me to predict” because of the storm, but he added, “At the end of the day, even if it’s close, we’re still going to be in the majority.”
Democrats are counting on President Obama’s popularity in the state to help their candidates. They have tried to focus attention on areas where they say the Senate Republicans have blocked progress in Albany, including measures to protect women’s rights, raise the minimum wage, tighten gun laws and overhaul campaign-finance laws.
“All we’ve done, and we’ve done it successfully to this point, is peel the onion back and let the voters and the people of the state see what damage the Senate Republicans are doing on the issues they care about,” said State Senator Michael N. Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and the chief of his caucus’s campaign committee. “In the final days,” he said, “we’re seeing that our path to the majority is a lot wider than anyone gave us credit for.”
Both parties are focusing on a relatively small number of competitive races. In the Rochester area, Ted O’Brien, a Democrat, is favored to defeat Assemblyman Sean T. Hanna, a Republican, in a contest to succeed James S. Alesi, a Republican senator who is not seeking re-election. Republicans are hoping to win a new Senate seat in the Hudson Valley that they created through redistricting, although a Siena poll conducted last week showed the race, between Assemblyman George Amedore, a Republican, and Cecilia Tkaczyk, a Democrat, to be too close to predict.
Downstate, the only door-knocking in recent days has focused on distributing food and water, not trying to solicit votes. The New York City Board of Elections said on Sunday that it would relocate or combine more than 60 polling places because of the storm, most of them in Brooklyn and Queens.
The hurricane disrupted two of the most competitive races in the state: one in Westchester County, where Bob Cohen, a Republican, is battling Assemblyman George S. Latimer, a Democrat, to fill the seat represented by Senator Suzi Oppenheimer, a Democrat who is retiring; the other in Queens, where Senator Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., a Democrat, is facing a tough challenge from a Republican city councilman, Eric A. Ulrich.
Some of the more conservative areas of the Queens Senate district — which gained much of the Rockaway Peninsula through redistricting — were hit particularly hard by the hurricane. That could hurt Mr. Ulrich’s chances on Tuesday if turnout in those areas is low.
Mr. Ulrich spent Sunday in Breezy Point, Queens, which was devastated by the storm and a raging fire that consumed scores of homes. Mr. Addabbo coordinated deliveries of food, pajamas and blankets from his district office in Howard Beach, which flooded during the storm and has now been turned into a 24-hour distribution point for donated goods.
“I have never had so many grown men cry on my shoulder,” Mr. Addabbo said. “Some of them have no homes. They need to rebuild. They’re not thinking of voting. And I, personally, haven’t either.”