WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Democrats currently hold a slim majority in the state Senate with 32 of the 62 Senate seats.
At one time, they were optimistic they could build on that majority. Their big hope now is that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's double digit lead in the polls translates in a windfall down the ballot.
But the most recent Siena Poll indicates Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, a Buffalo businessman, has enough of a stronghold upstate to help Republicans in tight races. In addition, several of the state's 29 House races have drawn dynamic Republican challengers, which could also push GOP vote totals up. And that's where state Senate bids are lost or won.
Plus, Senate Democrats have had some of their own setbacks.
Just weeks before the election, a report by New York State Inspector General Joseph Fisch zeroed in on Democratic leaders' involvement in the botched selection of a vendor to operate video lottery terminals at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. The report concluded that Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson and Senate President Malcolm Smith, among other Democrats, failed to “impose ethical restraints” and focused instead on political gain. The Inspector General's eight-month investigation showed that the companies looking to bring gaming to Aqueduct contributed tens of thousands of dollars to state Senate Democratic campaign coffers. Now, local and federal prosecutors have the IG report. And federal prosecutors had already been looking into the Aqueduct scandal.
Meanwhile, the IG report has given Republicans fresh ammunition on the eve of the election. Out of state conservative groups like the Common Sense Principles.com rushed out internet attack ads in response.
Still, Democrats were having problems long before the blockbuster IG report. Two promising candidates they had hoped could win in Long Island imploded. In Long Island's 1st District, Democrats thought Regina Calcaterra could beat long-time incumbent Republican Kenneth LaValle, who has been in office since 1976. But Calcaterra got knocked off the ballot over her lack residency, and now the Democrat's banner is carried by Jennifer Maertz. In the 6th District, GOP state Senator Kemp Hannon was going to face Democrat David Mejias. Then, Mejias was arrested on domestic violence charges in September. Democrats recruited Francesca Carlow to jump in mid-campaign.
Republicans think they have at least three possible pick-ups, maybe more.
In the 3rd District, Republican Lee Zeldin is in a tight race against Democratic incumbent Brian Foley. In the 48th, some polling has challenger Republican Patricia Ritchie slightly ahead of incumbent Democrat Darrel Aubertine.
Up in Buffalo's 58th, Republicans think they can benefit from a bitter Democratic primary. Back in September, Democratic incumbent William Stachowski was beaten by Erie County legislator Timothy Kennedy. Stachowski's vote against gay marriage was the political flashpoint during that debate in Albany. Now GOP strategists think Republican Assemblyman Jack Quinn can prevail. Quinn is the son of a former Congressman, and the Quinn name continues to have heft in Erie County. Democrats also have to contend with the complication that Stachowski's name is still on the ballot on third party ballot lines. The Buffalo brawl has drawn hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending on attack ads by outside groups. The latest polling from Siena shows Kennedy pulling ahead with a six point lead.
An open question is what the impact will be of the unorthodox Tea Party-inspired candidacy of Carl Paladino. Does it motivate disengaged conservatives or alienated independents not on pollsters radar to turn out for Paladino and Republican House candidates?
That could all be countered if the New York Obama voter base sees voting today as a way of sending a national message about the Tea Party agenda.
Of course, the final result could be a 31-31 split, which could lead to more power struggles like the ones that have flared up in the state Senate over the last two years.