As we head into election day, Democrats face the prospect of a massive conservative surge in North Country politics, possibly forcing them to give up the last of the historic gains they made beginning in 2006.
That was the year that Kirsten Gillibrand surged past Republican John Sweeney in the 20th district House race, leveraging a scandal to overcome a nearly-80,000 voter GOP enrollment advantage.
Gillibrand repeated the feat in 2008, the same year that Democrat Darrel Aubertine captured a North Country state Senate seat.
Meanwhile, three moderate Republican women were defining the political culture within the GOP, with Dede Scozzafava, Janet Duprey and Teresa Sayward all supporting same-sex marriage and declaring themselves pro-choice on abortion.
The center-left momentum continued in 2009 and 2010, with Bill Owens twice capturing the 23rd district House seat, the first time a Democrat had held that seat — ever.
In those elections, voters rejected Conservative party candidate Doug Hoffman and conservative Republican Matt Doheny by narrow margins.
But in 2012, the landscape appears very different. Aubertine and Scozzafava are already gone, with both now holding posts in the Democratic Cuomo administration — and both were replaced in the state legislature by Republicans.
The “Gillibrand” House seat, meanwhile, was lost by Demorats in 2010 to Republican Chris Gibson.
Teresa Sayward, the champion of same-sex marriage in the state Assembly, is also on her way out, having chosen not to seek re-election. Her likely successor, Dan Stec from Queensbury, is considerably more conservative.
Janet Duprey, from Peru, faces a fierce Conservative challenge on Tuesday from Conservative Karen Bisso in the 115th Assembly district, with the outcome made more uncertain by this year’s shifted redistricting maps.
Finally, Owens is locked in a tight re-election contest with Doheny and he faces an avalanche of conservative spending, which now tops $3.2 million dollars when you factor in the money the Republican has spent from his own bank account.
If, after tomorrow, the North Country in 2013 is represented by Matt Doheny, Karen Bisso, Dan Stec and Patty Ritchie, it will be a very different landscape than it was just a short time ago.
Was the era when Democrats and moderate-to-liberal Republicans dominated the political scene an aberration? Are we drifting back toward a more traditional “red” North Country?
That’s not entirely clear. Polls show that Barack Obama, Kirsten Gillibrand and Andrew Cuomo — all Democrats — still draw significant support in our region.
More plausible, I think, is the idea that Democrats have simply failed to organize, recruit candidates and build on their success that mobilizes long-term support.
Part of the problem may lie with the resignation of June O’Neill, the St. Lawrence County political operative who stepped down as head of the state Democratic Party in 2011.
I think it’s arguable that O’Neill’s leadership gave the North Country’s Democrats an extra spark, and fresh energy. That seems missing now.
Owens has run a quiet-to-lackluster campaign this year. Democrats failed to field a top-tier candidate to challenge for Sayward’s vacant seat. They also failed to capitalize seriously on Duprey’s third-party Conservative challenge in the 115th district race.
Whatever the cause, Democrats are clearly being outmatched by Conservatives and Republicans. It’s one thing to win a spate of big elections. It’s another to build the kind of political infrastructure that moves the needle over the long-term.
I think the same argument can be made about the old Rockefeller wing of the North Country’s GOP. Candidates like John McHugh, Scozafava, Duprey and Sayward were once the standard for the region.
Even if Duprey picks up a win on Tuesday, it’s clear that that the growing tea party-social conservative tide that has changed the rest of the country’s Republican brand has arrived in force in our corner of the world.