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.
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.