On Tuesday, New York will vote overwhelmingly for Joe Biden over Donald Trump. A Republican hasn’t won the state since Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984 and Trump, a son of Queens largely reviled in the place where he grew up, isn’t going to break that trend.
Down the ballot, however, there could be drama. Several Congressional races in the suburbs of New York City—and one within the five boroughs—can be won by either party’s candidate. Upstate, a handful of seats are in play too, as Democrats seek to benefit from a massive turnout surge. Beyond Congress, though, is the real contest that could determine the future of our imperiled city and the state as a whole: the battle for control of the State Senate.
Control, on its own, is not at stake. After Democrats stormed to the majority in the 2018 midterms, they now hold an unbreakable 40-23 advantage over Republicans in the upper chamber. The real fight is over whether Democrats can net two more seats and form what would be the first supermajority in modern political history, able to override vetoes from Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Why does this matter? Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Cuomo has exerted inordinate power over the legislature, winning new budgetary powers and withholding funds from state agencies, public schools, and universities. As New York’s economy freefalls, Cuomo has held out hope that Republicans in Congress and President Donald Trump would send tens of billions of dollars in local aid to the state.
This has not happened. If Joe Biden wins and Democrats take control of the Senate, a bailout may not materialize before next year. In the interim, local governments are reeling and private businesses are shutting down. Democrats in the legislature have hoped to raise new revenue through tax increases on the wealthy; Cuomo, fearful rich residents could flee the state, has rejected all calls for new taxes.
If Democrats win a supermajority in the State Senate, the first priority, lawmakers say, will be forcing Cuomo’s hand on raising taxes. There are a host of proposals on the table, including taxes for multimillionaires, novel wealth taxes, a stock transfer tax, or a tax on second, largely vacant, homes.
“The leaders of both legislative houses are clear that the Senate and Assembly support requiring the wealthiest to pay more to help solve our budget crisis,” said State Senator Michal Gianaris, the deputy leader of the chamber. “A Senate supermajority will increase our negotiating power to make that vision a reality.”
If Democrats net two more seats—or even more—it will be far more difficult for Cuomo to reject a bill raising taxes on the wealthy, since Republican lawmakers would no longer be needed to override a veto. Conversely, for Republicans and maybe even a Democrat-skeptical Cuomo, the loss of such leverage would spell doom for any hope of conservative power in government.
Democrats have many paths to a supermajority. A wave of retirements by longtime Republican senators has opened up new terrain, particularly in districts that Hillary Clinton won four years ago.
While Trump at the top of the ticket can drive Republican turnout, there are many more registered Democrats in New York, and hatred of Trump will likely bring them to the polls. A historic turnout spike could damage Republicans up and down the state.
“Democrats are mostly competing to win seats that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, but have been represented by longtime Republican incumbents now abandoning ship,” said Benjamin Rosenblatt, a Democratic consultant. “The national environment is undoubtedly favoring Democrats right now.”
If Democrats perform well enough on Election Day, they can also have total control of the decennial redistricting process, redrawing Senate districts that had been traditionally shaped to protect Republican incumbents.
For Republicans, there is hope that millions in outside expenditures from Ronald Lauder, a billionaire ally of Cuomo, and the Police Benevolent Association could tip the scales back their way. Both the PBA and Lauder, who is funding an independent expenditure committee called Safe Together New York, have attacked Democratic state senators and candidates in swing states for supporting bail and criminal justice reform laws they say have fueled a spike in murders and shootings. (There is no evidence of any direct link.)
“Republicans are confident that we will not only hold our seats, but grow our conference this year because New Yorkers reject one party rule,” said Candice Giove, a spokeswoman for the Senate Republican conference. “The idea that Democrats will have a supermajority is preposterous based on the groundswell of support we are seeing in every corner of the state. New Yorkers reject bail reform, higher taxes and chasing jobs out of New York.”
Here are five key races to watch as Democrats seek to dominate the State Senate for the foreseeable future.
Senate District 55: Democrat Samra Brouk vs. Republican Chris Missick
Brouk and Missick are competing to replace a retiring Republican, Richard Funke, in a district that spans part of Rochester. Democrats are optimistic Brouk, a former fundraiser for Chalkbeat, can defeat Missick, a local attorney and business owner, because Clinton easily carried the district over Trump in 2016, winning 56 percent of the vote.
Like elsewhere in New York, Biden is forecasted to perform better than Clinton this time around, lifting Democrats down the ticket. Brouk has expressed support for single-payer healthcare and other progressive positions. In a recent debate, the two candidates disagreed on a variety of issues, including healthcare, raising taxes on the wealthy, and rent relief. Missick does not support single-payer healthcare and, unlike Brouk, questioned the idea of a moratorium on rent payments and evictions. Brouk has a little more than $100,00 left in her campaign account, while Missick has about $186,000 left to spend.
Senate District 50: Democrat John Mannion vs. Republican Angi Menna
Two years ago, Mannion, a high school teacher, narrowly lost to Republican Bob Antonacci in the Syracuse region. Antonacci vacated the district to become a judge and the state teachers’ union is heavily backing Mannion, who is also winning support from organized labor that didn’t aid him two years ago. Clinton beat Trump in the district, 50 to 45 percent, making it yet another place where strong Democratic turnout could propel Mannion to victory. The race has attracted significant outside spending, with the two candidates disagreeing on a variety of issues. Renna, who owns a financial advising business, describes herself as pro-life, while Mannion supports abortion rights. Renna, however, hasn’t said if she would vote for Trump. The Republican has less than $33,000 left in her campaign account, compared to Mannion’s haul of around $200,000.
Senate District 41: Republican State Senator Sue Serino vs. Democrat Karen Smythe
In the 2018 blue wave, Serino, whose seat covers Dutchess and Putnam counties, was one of the few Republican survivors. She beat Smythe, the head of a family construction business, by less than 700 votes. This time, Smythe could benefit if Biden outperforms Clinton, who barely defeated Trump in the district, 49 to 47 percent, in 2016. The two are quite different: Serino is a proud fiscal conservative and critic of the new criminal justice reform laws, while Smythe has identified as a progressive and defends them. Smythe is one of the few Senate candidates to win the backing of Biden. The Democrat has about $168,000 left in her coffers, compared to Serino’s roughly $116,000.
Senate District 40: Democratic State Senator Pete Harckham vs. Republican Rob Astorino
There are other pick-up opportunities for Democrats we could highlight here, but one of the more interesting chances Republicans have to take one seat back is in the Hudson Valley, where first-term Democratic Senator Pete Harckham is fending off a one-time rising star in the GOP, Rob Astorino. Astorino served two terms as Westchester County executive and mounted a vigorous, long-shot challenge against Andrew Cuomo in 2014. After losing a bid for a third term as county executive in 2017, Astorino is attempting a comeback in a district that was held by a Republican as recently as 2018. Like other Republicans, he has run on a law-and-order platform, attacking Harckham for being a supporter of criminal justice reform. But a blue wave may drown him out: Clinton won the seat 52-45 percent in 2016 and Democrats are expecting a very strong turnout in the suburbs. Astorino has been an aggressive fundraiser, banking more than a half million dollars for the final stretch. Harckham, a Cuomo ally, has less than $150,000 left to spend.
Senate District 6: Democratic State Senator Kevin Thomas vs. Republican Dennis Dunne
Democrats aren’t playing defense in many seats this cycle. One of the seats Republicans hope to grab is Thomas’s in Nassau County, which he won only two years ago, shocking longtime Republican incumbent Kemp Hannon. Thomas, the first Indian-American elected to the Senate, has been a low key and relatively moderate lawmaker in his first term. The PBA, which has a strong base in Nassau County, is spending $1 million to defeat Thomas, a supporter of bail reform. Dunne, a Town of Hempstead council member, is hoping to tie Thomas to progressives in New York City who are unpopular with conservative suburban voters. Thomas could be saved if Biden performs: Clinton won the district in 2016, 50-47 percent over Trump. Thomas still has about $276,000 in the bank, compared to a little more than $60,000 for Dunne.