The Trump Effect: Why the president looms large on local elections in native New York
Will voters be willing to split their ballots at a time when dividing lines have been drawn in the sand and most people have intractable views on Trump and his administration?
Local elections used to be about issues like garbage collection and filling potholes, but now they’re mostly about Donald Trump.
Backlash to the polarizing president since his 2017 inauguration has made reliably blue New York even bluer, with Republicans knocked out of office in key parts of the state and Democrats boosted by a new wave of progressive activism.
How voters feel about the president is expected to be a top factor as they make their election picks this year, from the top-of-the-ballot race all the way down to the local level.
“This is exactly what people have waited for for four years, and I think it’s going to be deadly for the downballot candidates who are Republicans this year,” said Shannon Powell, leader of the anti-Trump group Indivisible Westchester.
“You cannot escape Donald Trump, try as you might, it is absolutely impossible for the Republican Party to separate itself from the president.”
Indivisible formed in Westchester as part of a national movement after Trump took office and it has become part of a network of volunteers organized to elect Democrats.
Many of the new breed of activists who have been writing postcards or making phone calls weren’t engaged in local politics or government until the Trump presidency.
Democratic candidates have tapped into that new engagement by adopting the strategy of portraying local candidates as Trump surrogates. But this year, Trump himself is on the ballot.
“I hear people say they will crawl over broken glass to vote, they will get a hazmat suit to go vote,” Powell said. “They will do anything they have to do to in order to vote this year.”
While Trump helped some Republicans in 2016 in New York get elected, it didn't carry over into the 2018 state and local elections.
Republicans lost the state Senate in 2018, the last piece of state government they still controlled. Republicans hold only six of 27 U.S. House seats in New York and have lost ground in places such as Westchester and Nassau on Long Island, where they held influence in the pre-Trump era despite registration disadvantages.
But the GOP is looking to rebound and hoping their home state president can boost their prospects at the polls. Trump in 2016 received only about 37% of the total vote yet still won 45 of 62 counties.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 statewide, and the disparity is growing exponentially.
Between 2016 and February of this year, Democrats had a net gain of more than 235,000 active voters while Republicans saw a net loss of more than 37,000 active voters.
GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy said Trump takes care of one key issue for Republicans: He helps boost turnout.
"Having the president at the top of the ticket, you know his base is coming to the polls," Langworthy said. "So it allows the candidates to do a lot more work with swing voters and try to make that persuasion key."
In 2016, Trump’s coattails helped Republican Claudia Tenney to a win in a key congressional seat in central New York that she lost in 2018. Tenney is seeking to reclaim the seat this year against Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica.
Ticket-splitting less likely
A recent Siena College poll showed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leading Trump statewide 61%-29% with a month until the Nov. 3 election.
Siena poll spokesman Steven Greenberg said the challenge for downballot candidates in a presidential year is to ensure that voters make their way through the whole ballot.
“We know that there’s bigger turnout in presidential than gubernatorial years in New York and everywhere, but the key for local candidates – either congressional, legislative or even local office – is to be able to ensure that the voters who are coming out vote for you, or know you,” Greenberg said.
The question will be whether voters are willing to split their ballots at a time when dividing lines have been drawn in the sand and most people have intractable views on Trump and his administration.
The coronavirus pandemic response, the makeup of the Supreme Court and a national reckoning on race are at the forefront of people’s minds, with many plugged into politics more than ever before.
That may mean high turnout, with enthusiasm not only from Trump detractors but from his supporters particularly in the rural, red parts of the state.
But Republican candidates in all but the most right-leaning areas will still have to distance themselves from Trump, Democratic consultant Jake Dilemani contended.
The thought process, he said, is the president’s base isn’t going to cross party lines anyway and is likely to vote Republican down the line.
Because of this, candidates in marginal seats are portraying themselves on the campaign trail as consensus builders or advertising that they could work across party lines in an effort to pick up independents and moderates.
“To the extent there are people you have to persuade to vote for you to win that marginal seat, your strategy should not include going all in for Trump,” Dilemani said.
In New York, the Trump effect has pushed Republicans in most areas to show they can work bipartisan while it has pushed Democrats to adopt a more progressive agenda and pledge loyalty to traditional left-leaning platforms, he said.
Republican strategist William O’Reilly said GOP candidates should be focusing on examples of the state “moving radically left.”
O’Reilly is working on the campaign of Republican Rob Astorino who is running against state Sen. Pete Harckham in District 40, one of the few remaining battleground districts in the lower part of New York.
"There are two separate political conversations going on in New York, one national and one local,” O’Reilly said.
“The national conversation is all about Trump – do you love him or hate him? – and the local conversation is about skyrocketing crime and taxes – what is Albany doing to us under single-party rule?”
Republicans' uphill battle
New York has been a firmly blue state for years before Trump, a Queens native, ran for president.
No Republican presidential candidate has won the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984, and no Republican has won statewide office since former Gov. George Pataki in 2002.
But in off-year elections, Republican candidates were still wielding influence with the conventional political wisdom that Democrats or left-leaning independents wouldn’t vote in years without a presidential race, or would vote on pocketbook issues when social policy wasn’t at stake.
Westchester, where Democrats had a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage, was a stark example of the shift.
Astorino won election there twice as a Republican county executive, and the GOP controlled the 17-member county legislature in a coalition leadership structure as recently as 2017.
But Astorino was knocked out by Democrat George Latimer, and today there are no longer any registered Republicans in the county legislature.
In 2018, Democrats crushed at the polls in a midterm year, picking up key congressional seats. Gov. Andrew Cuomo cruised to a third term, and Democrats won control of the state Senate for the first time since 2010.
Now, Democrats control all of the state government, with a 40-23 edge in Senate seats.
If Republicans will have any chance of picking up seats this fall, they have another challenge: Nine Senate Republicans, some of whom have been in office for decades, are not seeking reelection, meaning the GOP not only has to try to keep those seats but also try to wrest some from Democratic control.
The congressional picture is also troubling for Republicans: The party holds just six of the state's 27 congressional seats, and New York might lose at least one seat, potentially two, in the next redistricting in 2022.
Republicans will need Trump’s help in battleground areas such as parts of the Hudson Valley and on Long Island, where he won Suffolk County in 2016.
Langworthy said there was more optimism than in 2018 when Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro challenged Cuomo at the top of the ticket.
"You know your votes are coming out, which is something you couldn’t count on in 2018," Langworthy said. "So you didn’t have the same enthusiasm that was organic coming into the race like that.”
But longtime political commentator Mike Edelman, a former Republican who switched to independent several years ago, said this year people will vote emotionally.
New York voters will take their frustration out even on “decent” Republican candidates, he said.
“They’re going to stay on the Democratic line just to punish Donald Trump," Edelman predicted.