Why Republicans can’t accept a level playing field in the state Senate

Last November, Republicans were at the top of their game nationwide, riding a groundswell of anger over the economy to historic gains.

Here in New York, the bitterness was deepened by the state budget crisis.  And for the Empire state’s GOP, the mood wasn’t just an opportunity, it was a life-line. Put simply, it was a do-or-die election.

In recent years, the once-mighty New York Republicans had been stripped of nearly all their power.  They didn’t hold a single statewide office.  Their delegation in Washington had been devastated.

The reasons for their political malaise might seem obvious.  There are currently more than 5,800,000 enrolled Democrats in the state.  Republicans have fewer than 3,000,000 party members.

Even in former GOP bastions, including the North Country, Democrats were making big gains in enrollment, organization, and fundraising.

Still, after a hard-fought campaign, Republicans in the state Senate scored an apparent triumph, capturing 32 seats and a slim majority.  They were back in the game.

Claiming a big moral victory, Republican leaders headed to Albany demanding a big say in the budget process, and an equal say in negotiations to draw new political boundaries following the 2010 Census.

But here’s the wrinkle.

In last year’s elections, Democratic candidates for state Senate actually won far more votes — a nearly 100,000 vote advantage statewide.

To put that number in perspective, state Senator Betty Little from Queensbury won her uncontested race with 71,000 votes.

The reason Republicans can capture a majority of seats while losing the popular vote is that district lines have been drawn strategically over the years to favor the GOP.

Some cynics have called the state Senate a “Republican protection program.”

How does it work?  It’s a little complicated, but the basic strategy is to draw the political boundaries so that fewer GOP votes are “wasted” in losing contests.

The impact can be plainly seen in last year’s outcome.  In nineteen Senate races — a third of the contests statewide — the losing GOP candidate drew fewer than 10,000 Republican votes.

That’s a very efficient way to fail.  It means far more of the GOP’s voting base was concentrated in districts where the party had a strong chance to prevail.

By contrast, Democrats lost just three races with fewer than 10,000 Democratic votes, and in all three cases it was because the Dems didn’t run a candidate.

That means far more of their defeats were costly ones, with heaps of Democratic votes cast in losing efforts.

This kind of gerrymandered approach to politics is a hugely effective, and it’s a time-honored tradition in New York state.

And it’s the reason that former New York City’ Mayor Ed Koch’s bid for a nonpartisan redistricting process is dead on arrival.

Yes, many Republicans campaigned on the idea that political lines should be drawn by some sort of independent, apolitical organization, with the goal of creating logical and fair Senate and Assembly districts.

But they’re already backing away from that idea. 

Speaking this week with North Country Public Radio, state Senator Joe Griffo argued that the non-partisan approach proposed by Koch is tainted.

“Even though I support the concept, I am not going going to just embrace a bill because the Governor or Mayor Ed Koch says this is the right bill,” Griffo said.

“You have Mayor Koch who’s a former Democrat mayor of New York City, and you have a Democrat governor right now…so I think all of this is somewhat tainted,” he added.

Obviously, it’s fair to debate the make-up of a nonpartisan redistricting committee, but that’s mostly window dressing.

The simple truth is that the numbers — from enrollment figures to the results from recent elections — show that a level playing field would make it nearly impossible for the GOP to compete.

Even with heavily gerrymandered districts, and with Senate Democrats leaderless, in deep disarray and caught up in scandals, Republicans have struggled to hang on, eking out a razor-thin majority.

The GOP’s struggle will grow even harder after 2012 based on the latest Census numbers, which show population growth concentrated mostly in Democratic strongholds.

Which means that Republicans will need every edge they can get as they scramble to rebuild and reverse the tide.

And make no mistake.  If Democrats were in the same corner, they would do exactly the same thing.

So look for there to be a lot of lip-service paid to changing the redistricting process in Albany, but for now the partisan game will go on.

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14 Comments on “Why Republicans can’t accept a level playing field in the state Senate”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    For what it’s worth and it isn’t worth much, I never vote for anyone who is running unopposed, even if I happen to like them and might vote for them if someone was running against them.
    When you consider the fact that many people don’t bother to vote, it is totally absurd for anyone to claim to have a mandate unless they get more than 60 to 70 percent of the vote in a race where they had an opponent.
    An honest elected official (I hope there are some) would act and vote with the knowledge that they represent everyone in their district and not just those who voted for them and especially not for just those who gave them money to run.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  2. phahn50 says:

    Its too bad because if more districts were more competitive, we might have less pandering to the base and more sensible government. As it is, what we get is representatives whose only concern is power – theirs and their party’s. That said, one party government has its own drawbacks (see Wisconsin).

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  3. Mervel says:

    However if the districts are re-drawn following Koch’s panel, the north country will likely cease to exist as any sort of political base. The Western half would be absorbed into Syracuse districts and the East would be absorbed into Albany districts.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. scratchy says:

    The districts have been gerrymeandered but it’s important to remember that in many NYC neighborhoods the Democratic candidate is guranteed at least 70% of the vote just by virtue of being the Democratic candidate.

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  5. phahn50 says:

    scratchy – thats good for the Republicans, as Brian pointed out.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. J Bel says:

    If you live in central St. Lawrence County, the situation Mervel describes already exists with our Senator in Utica. It seems to me that Oswego, Jefferson, Lewis, Herkimer, and St. Lawrence counties should be a district. Clinton, Franklin. Essex, Hamilton, and Warren counties should be the other North Country district. It was something like this when our Senators were Stafford and Barclay.

    We deserve senators that live in and understand the special problems we face in this area of New York.

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  7. Bret4207 says:

    Gerrymandering is simply wrong no matter who does it or at what level. But, no one is going to step up and fix it, so what do we do?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  8. Bob S says:

    Funny how NCPR doesn’t mention how the “nonpartisan” commission proposed by Koch and his fellow Democrats would be controlled by a majority of…Democrats. Not only is there no such thing as a “nonpartisan” redistricting process, but the Koch proposal calls for the Democratic Governor and the Democratic Speaker of the Assembly to appoint a lopsided majority of Commission members. NCPR might want to give a little balance to its coverage of this story.

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  9. b sarbane says:

    Someone at North Country Public Radio might want to look in a mirror and understand why NPR stations are accused of left-wing bias, including the goon who is editing these comments to ensure no conservatives make mention of that bias. Censorship has no place in taxpayer funded programs, including this blog site.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  10. oa says:

    Yes, Sommerstein, Mann and Hobson are definitely the vision that pops into my head when I think of the word “goons.”

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  11. Mervel says:

    The deal that NYS Republicans made though to control the Senate was that they would essentially be Democrats. I often vote Republican in national elections but usually vote for Democrats in NYS as they are frequently more conservative on many of the issues I care about then their Republican rival.

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  12. Bob C. says:

    My answer to this – and all other political problems – is a simple one: term limits. But no one wants to hear that, apparently; especially our elected representatives.

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  13. dave says:

    The argument that without these camps people will stop coming here to hunt and spend money in the area is silly.

    Likewise, the notion that without these camps people will be forced to sleep in cars in order to hunt is equally absurd. Buy a tent at a local outfitter, rent a room at a local motel, set your alarm…

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  14. Dale Hobson says:

    b sarbane says:
    “Someone at North Country Public Radio might want to look in a mirror and understand why NPR stations are accused of left-wing bias, including the goon who is editing these comments to ensure no conservatives make mention of that bias.”

    This is the goon you are talking about and I shaved just this morning. I do not edit comments–they are either in or out–but never edited. They are never blocked for political point of view–only for obscenity, abusive or legally actionable statements directed at individuals, commercial and pornographic spam, etc. Our most prolific commenter in the In Box is a certified conservative. The fact that your comment appears above argues against your point. What you say did not get you blocked. It is not outside the bounds of the conversation; it is simply misinformed.

    Dale Hobson, NCPR

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