In the middle of September, with State Senate Democrats heavily outspending Republicans in their quest to expand their majority, a billionaire entered the fray to help the beleaguered GOP.

Ronald Lauder, the 76-year-old heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune, dropped $1.7 million into the operations of the new independent expenditure group called Safe Together New York, taking specific aim at six Senate Democratic candidates—four incumbents and two challengers.

Among Democrats, the expenditure raised eyebrows because Lauder, a conservative, has long been an ally of Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has often been at odds with fellow Democrats in the Senate. Mathematically, it will be almost impossible for Republicans to take the majority this fall, and if they lose two more Senate seats, Democrats will amass a supermajority, enabling them to override vetoes from the governor’s office.

A supermajority of Senate Democrats would also gain greater control over the decennial redistricting process, perhaps cementing favorable district lines for the next 10 years, as well as charting the destinies of House Democrats and Republicans.

The ad campaign, running on television in prime time, takes aim at Democratic incumbents in swing districts, like Long Island’s Monica Martinez and Jim Gaughran, and opposes candidates with a chance at taking Republican seats, including Syracuse’s John Mannion. The ads do not mention the Republican candidates—they take aim, instead, at Democrats for supporting bail reform measures passed last year, attempting (without evidence) to tie criminal justice reforms to rising murder rates in certain localities, including New York City. Cuomo himself supported the reforms, though he later sought, with more moderate Senate Democrats, to weaken them.

Christian Browne, a Long Island attorney who was involved in setting up Safe Together New York, did not immediately return a request for comment. He told the Buffalo News that with the Senate “dominated by liberal Democrats, Albany has lost focus on keeping us safe. STNY is an effort to hold candidates accountable for being more concerned with the rights of criminals than the safe, law-abiding taxpayers.”

Democrats and allied groups are denouncing the late outside expenditure in competitive Senate contests.

“As New Yorkers face growing bread lines, slashed school budgets and underfunded hospitals, we need leaders in Albany who will deliver for working people—not austerity-minded Republicans propped up by one billionaire’s checkbook,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the state director of the Working Families Party, which has been involved in aiding Senate Democratic efforts.

After a decade in the minority, Democrats took control of the State Senate in 2019, passing a raft of long-bottled up bills that had been priorities for progressives. While Cuomo, belatedly, helped Democrats in the 2018 cycle, he had spent years quietly supporting Republicans in the majority and undercutting Democratic campaigns. A divided legislature—Democrats always held the Assembly—had enhanced the power of the executive branch.

In 2019, that appeared to briefly change. Both Democratic chambers worked together to pass bills quickly, sending them to Cuomo’s desk on their own timeline.

The COVID-19 pandemic lent Cuomo renewed clout, both with the popularity he accrued through his daily press briefings and the emergency budget powers he was granted by the state legislature in March. If Democrats capture a supermajority in the chamber, holding 42 seats, they could theoretically shift the balance of power dramatically, forcing Cuomo to accept new tax hikes on the wealthy, single-payer healthcare, and other progressive pieces of legislation he would rather not enact. At the end of 2019, Cuomo also vetoed a wide range of bills.

Safe Together New York’s expenditure will help Republicans struggling with a severe cash disadvantage. As of July, Senate Republicans had banked a little more than $600,000 for their campaigns, compared to the more than $4.5 million sitting in Democratic coffers.

For years, Lauder and Cuomo have enjoyed a close relationship. Lauder and his family have donated nearly $400,000 to Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaigns over the last decade. As recently as January, the two men met when Cuomo traveled to Poland to promote efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Later in the year, during the pandemic, Cuomo praised Estee Lauder for donating tens of thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer.

Otherwise a major Republican donor, Lauder is a longtime friend of former U.S. Senator Al D’Amato, who has become an influential lobbyist since leaving office. D’Amato, a former GOP power broker, crossed the aisle to support Cuomo, hosting a fundraiser for the governor in 2019.

Browne, the attorney who helped set up Safe Together New York, was D’Amato’s co-counsel when they sued the City of Long Beach in 2017, attempting to overturn building permits for a contested superblock property.

One very competitive Senate Republican race was neglected by Lauder: former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino’s attempt to unseat Senator Pete Harckham, who was narrowly elected just two years ago in a district Republicans long held. Astorino, a conservative Republican running on a law-and-order platform, appeared to be an ideal candidate for Safe Together New York.

But Astorino ran against Cuomo for governor in 2014. The race was bitter and Astorino has remained an outspoken Cuomo critic

Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, denied any link between Lauder’s outside expenditure and Cuomo himself.

“We’re proud of the legislation we passed and any connection to whatever this is exists only in the overactive minds of conspiracy nuts and perhaps those who choose to write about them,” Azzopardi said.

For now, Senate Democrats have chosen to highlight a billionaire’s intervention into a slew of Senate races rather than that billionaire’s relationship with Cuomo—at least openly.

“When corporate CEOs use their wealth in this way, it threatens the progress that we’ve been able to make with a Democratic Senate,” said State Senator Julia Salazar, a Brooklyn Democrat.