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Over A Dozen Races In Play In NYS Senate

New York State Capitol
Karen DeWitt
New York State Capitol

All of the 212 seats in the New York State legislature are up for election this year. There are more than a dozen contested seats in the state Senate, where Democrats are favored to win many of the contests and potentially gain a supermajority. But Republicans say they hope to gain some seats, too. 

Democrats, who took over the Senate two years ago in a decisive series of wins, are poised to pick up even more seats, says Senator Michael Gianaris, who is overseeing the Democrats’ strategy. Gianaris, who represents portions of Queens, spoke on his cell phone while he was standing in line to vote early. He says he’s encouraged by the high numbers of New Yorkers casting their ballots so far.  

“The enthusiasm we are seeing both in the big numbers of absentee voters, as well as early votes, is largely due to people very energized to vote against Donald Trump,” Gianaris said. “We are seeing a very big advantage in Democratic advantage in these early votes, and that’s going inure to our benefit for our candidates down the ballot, as well.”  

Ten Republican state senators have decided not to run again, and Gianaris believes that will benefit Democratic candidates. He says in some of those districts, the longtime GOP incumbent held the seat through name recognition and connections to their community, even though their district’s demographics increasingly favored Democrats.  

“They are districts that are Democrat by registration that were being held by personally popular Republicans who are no longer around,” Gianaris said.  

Gianaris says many voters approve of the policies that Democrats have adopted over the past two years, including codifying the abortion rights in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into law, and strengthening tenant rights and gun safety laws, and combating climate change.  

He says Democrats hope to hold on to the 40 seats they currently have, and increase seats upstate, in the Rochester and Buffalo areas, and in the Hudson Valley. He believes an open seat on Eastern Long Island is also competitive. Democrats need just two more seats to form a supermajority and be able to override any potential vetoes from Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. 

Senate Republicans are also actively competing for seats.   

Minority Leader Robert Ortt says he believes that the GOP can take back several districts on Long Island and in the Lower Hudson Valley that were previously held by Republicans for decades, but were won by Democrats in 2018. Ortt, from Western New York, says his party hopes to hang on to two traditionally Republican-held districts in Buffalo and Syracuse. He believes that some of the open seats previously held by the GOP can remain Republican.  But Ortt says he’s taking nothing for granted. 

“There’s no gimmies for me,” Ortt said. “In this election cycle in a state like New York there’s no automatics. So wherever there is an open seat, we have to be invested and take it very seriously.”

Ortt says Republicans are focusing on some of the less popular changes made by Democrats over the past two years, including bail reform measures opposed by many law enforcement groups. He says some New Yorkers might not want to have one party-rule in state government, and might prefer that Republicans deal with issues like managing the pandemic-ravaged economy. 

“Who do you trust to get the New York state economy going? Who do you trust to protect our communities and return some balance to the state?” Ortt said. “And I think that message has resonated with voters.”  

Whichever candidates win, there are some big decisions looming for the legislature in 2021. The state faces a cumulative two-year deficit of $50 billion, according to Governor Cuomo’s budget officials. And, without a relief package from the federal government, tough choices may have to be made, including possible tax increases, spending cuts, aid reductions to schools and even borrowing money.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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