The upcoming election to replace former Republican state senator Tom Libous is high-stakes. If the district turns Democrat, it could tip the balance of power in the state senate. Conventional wisdom says that’s going to be very hard to do. The area seems like a Republican stronghold after Libous’ long tenure, and it has over 9,000 more voters registered Republican than Democrat. But a deeper look tells another story.
It turns out that the rural, upstate area actually has a penchant for voting Democrat in certain elections. Andrew Cuomo, Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand: all these big-name Democrats have won the district in their runs for governor, president and U.S. Senate over the last decade. Even Rob Astorino, who gave Cuomo a run for his money statewide, barely managed to capture the area in last year’s race.
So how Republican is the 52nd district? There are three things to keep in mind in answering that question, and they all mean the election in November is far from a done deal.
Number one: independents. The 52nd district has over 35,000 registered voters not affiliated with any party. Jim Twombly at Elmira College says that can make election outcomes unpredictable.
“A Democratic presidential candidate or a gubernatorial candidate, or Gillibrand or Schumer, will do far better than you might expect,” he says. “They’ll get Republican crossover votes, but they’ll also get a much higher proportion of the people who have no party enrollment.”
Those unaffiliated voters are a big question mark. They mean the district’s large number of registered Republicans doesn’t tell the whole story.
Number two: turnout. Small elections like state senate don’t bring out the voters big races do. Twombly says a lot of the people who helped Obama and Cuomo win over the district probably didn’t vote at all in the off-years when Tom Libous was running.
“In political science we call [them] ‘peripheral voters’,” he says, “Voters whose attention is heightened every four years by a presidential election, and then they go away. They don’t come back again for four more years.”
Will they turn up for this state senate race? Twombly says it’s hard to say because this November is a local election, too.
“Democrats have been good in the last ten years or so winning special elections that have not been at the same time as local elections,” he says. But in the local election in November, there will be lots of city- and county- specific races on the ballot. Those races typically turn out more Republicans.
SUNY New Paltz political scientist Gerald Benjamin brings up the third thing to keep in mind about the 52nd district:
“People will split their tickets if they know the incumbent and the incumbent is well-entrenched and well-established,” he says.
Popular incumbents, like Tom Libous, are hard to defeat no matter what party they’re from. Twombly says Libous appealed to all kinds of voters, and that probably brought Democrats over to his side.
“He was good at attending to the needs of the district regardless of whether it was a Democrat or a Republican asking for help,” Twombly says.
That means that for a long time, the seat has been a done deal for Republicans. Twice in recent years no Democrat even ran for it because there was such a strong incumbent. Benjamin says that may be about to change.
“The vulnerability for the Republicans is significant when they lose their incumbent because generally speaking Republicans are dying off in New York, quite literally,” he says.
Republicans tend to be older, and the gap in registered voters between the two parties is narrowing in the district. The 52nd really doesn’t bleed red, which makes this election between Republican Fred Akshar and Democrat Barbara Fiala one to watch. It means showing up to vote in November will make all the difference.