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The NY State Senate & The Future of Congress

By Reid Wilson

Having trended Democratic over recent decades, New York gave Democrats more to crow about in 2006 than most other states. The party re-elected Senator Hillary Clinton by a huge margin, replaced a retiring Republican governor with a Democrat, and picked up three previously Republican House seats. But even with an overwhelming majority in the state's Assembly - 107 of the 150 seats are held by Democrats - one prize stayed in Republican hands: The State Senate.

With a slim 33-29 majority, Republicans are determined to hold the line in the upper chamber, and not just for the sake of the GOP in Albany. Washington Republicans are focused on the State Senate as well, as it, and many legislative chambers like it around the country, will play a pivotal role in the 2012 redistricting. If Democrats can pick up just two seats in either 2008 or 2010 -- all 62 seats are up every two years - they could alter the shape of New York's Congressional delegation for a decade to come.

When the Census Bureau surveys the American population in 2010, New York is likely to lose two seats in Congress, as growth in the state has not kept up with the rest of the country. The trend is hardly a new one: Having peaked in the 73rd Congress, after the 1932 redistricting, with 45 seats, New York has seen its delegation decline to 29 seats after the 2000 Census.

New York's redistricting process is controlled by representatives of the governor, the Assembly Speaker and the Senate President. If the Senate remains in Republican hands, it is likely that both parties will lose a seat through redistricting. If Democrats succeed in retaking the chamber, Republicans could lose two seats in Congress.

Inspecting the Senate districts individually, one would think Democrats would have taken the chamber years ago. Two Republican-held seats, based in Queens, vote overwhelmingly for Democrats in other races. Senators Frank Padavan (R-11) and Serphin Maltese (R-15) have represented their districts for years.

Other Republican senators hold seats on Long Island, where Democrats have recently won Congressional seats. But State Senators Kemp Hannon (R-06), Charles Fuschillo (R-08) and Dean Skelos (R-09) each won their seats by wide margins in 2006.

All five districts, as well as two Republican-held seats in Upstate, boast Democratic registrations over 50%, according to data provided by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) in Washington. Add to that four other districts that perform at better than 47% for Democrats, and the DLCC may have reason to be bullish.

"Just looking at the numbers, there are eleven seats that are performing at nearly 50% or higher [for Democrats] that [Republicans] are going to have to defend," said DLCC Executive Director Michael Sargent. "The bill's going to come due for Republicans."

Indeed, many incumbent Republicans are representing districts that love them, not their party. When State Senator Michael Balboni, a Long Island Republican, was appointed Deputy Secretary for Public Safety by Governor Eliot Spitzer, earlier this year, his 7th District elected a Democrat in his place. With several members in their seventies, Republicans may need to begin planning for impending retirements in districts that, like Balboni's, may move to a new party when a popular incumbent steps down.

But for Republicans, who have held the State Senate since 1966, the Democratic excitement over the chamber is nothing new. "If you just listen to the rhetoric they put out year after year, every two years it's the same mantra," said Ed Lurie, executive director of the Senate Republicans' campaign arm. "Every year we're still the majority."

New York is not the state it once was, though. "The suburbs are changing, both around New York City and upstate," said University of Albany Professor Scott Barclay. Long Island, says one Democrat familiar with the state landscape, has been the hub of that shift. The area has seen an influx of minorities, who tend to vote Democratic, and who, because of their fledgling roots, are less tied to voting for a popular politician of the opposite party.

Add to that the poor state in which the Republican Party finds itself, and the GOP may have to begin worrying. The state party, says Barclay, "has had trouble establishing its difference from the national Republican Party." The GOP's problems came to a head last year, when none of the statewide Republican candidates running for governor, attorney general or Senate earned more than 40% of the vote.

"It's always an uphill battle in a state where you're out-enrolled almost five and a half to three," said Lurie, the Republican. Padavan and Maltese, the members from Queens, represent a borough in which 72% of the vote went to top-ticket Democrats, while just 27% chose the GOP. The party's failure to hold Balboni's seat, on Long Island, "really shows that candidates will make a difference," said Barclay.

Both parties are focused on recruiting, and neither would lay out which seats they will target in 2008. The Democratic strategist familiar with the state's landscape pointed to Maltese, who won by just under 900 votes in 2006; Caesar Trunzo, whose 2nd District lies on Eastern Long Island; and John DeFrancisco, from Syracuse, and Jim Alesi, from Fairport, near Rochester.

If Democrats succeed in retaking the chamber in either 2008 or 2010, they will be able to boost their party's majority in the state's Congressional delegation. After 2006, in which then-Reps. John Sweeney and Sue Kelly lost their seats to Democratic challengers, just six Republicans join twenty-three Democrats in Washington. Three of those Republicans, Reps. Jim Walsh, Tom Reynolds and John "Randy" Kuhl, won with less than 52% of the vote.

With Democrats in charge of New York's redistricting, all three could find more Democratic voters in their district, and all three would face extremely difficult reelection campaigns in 2012. If Republicans maintain their majority in the upper chamber, redrawing the map will likely end up in court, which would probably end up with each party losing a seat.

New York is but one front in the constantly evolving redistricting battle. A few state senate seats in the Empire State, or many of the more than 7200 state legislative seats around the country, could change the outlook of Congress for the next decade following the 2012 redistricting.

Just a few thousand votes in Long Island, or in upstate New York, prove Tip O'Neill's old adage: All politics is local.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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