Mass. hysteria: N.Y. Dems should embrace anti-incumbency

JANUARY 24, 2010
    Democrats in New York are looking at Massachusetts, and they are scared.
    The Republican victory in the reliably Democratic state last week followed several surprising “insurgent” votes in New York last November. Neither party has a clear handle on voter anger, which seems rooted in the recession, high unemployment and the expensive bank bailouts. But the Democrats, who are in power, are more vulnerable to the backlash — they’ve hurt themselves by failing to construct an easily understandable game plan for getting the state out of its economic hole.
    But thanks to the Massachusetts result, New York Democrats are on notice about what may face them in November. They must focus on motivating their base, which Massachusetts party leaders completely failed to do.
    Democrats toppled New York’s last Republican stronghold, the State Senate, in 2008 — a great year for voter participation. But turnout is usually significantly lower in nonpresidential elections. And without exciting new faces promising change, many voters won’t be motivated. So the party needs to leverage its base.
    Unfortunately for the Democrats, they face several problems with their sitting officials. For months, the party has been praying that embattled Gov. David Paterson will step aside. But even with the approval of President Barack Obama, shoving Paterson out of the way could prove unpopular with a key constituency, African-American voters. The Democrats simply have to figure out a way to remove Paterson from the picture without a damaging and racially divisive primary fight.
    Add to the Paterson problem that of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whose record is viewed as far to the right of the party base. Massachusetts showed how vulnerable weak candidates are right now, but the Democrats seem determined to stick with Gillibrand. The party is crossing its fingers and hoping that her fundraising talents, perceived crossover appeal — she won her congressional seat in a Republican-favored district — and a well-run campaign will be enough.
    Even in an insurgent year, the Democrats will likely be favored in both those races. But loss of their tenuous control of the New York State Senate — right before the critical redistricting fight — is a real threat. Since it looks like they are incapable of proving themselves worthy legislators, they must embrace anti-incumbent sentiment. That means pushing out weaker incumbents and replacing them with stronger choices. They’ve already started, with the retirement of Queens Sen. George Onorato and growing pressure on Buffalo Sen. William Stachowski.
    This is a smart move for Democrats, since so far the Republicans are sticking with their long-timers in the Senate, including, among many others, West Babylon Sen. Owen Johnson and New City Sen. Thomas Morahan. And the GOP’s most likely candidates at the top of the ticket also appear to be neither exciting new faces nor proven vote-getters.
    Democrats have good reason to be scared, but they are forewarned. Prioritizing turnout and finding fresh candidates will be key to surviving the insurgent wave.
    Joshua Spivak is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College.