the color of dutchess: how republicans have held off the blue wave so far
the math seems like it would be conclusive.
in dutchess county, there are roughly 18,000 more registered democrats than republicans. however, the county’s leadership has been uniformly republican for more than 12 years. the county executive has been a republican since 1992.
in part, that could be because dutchess’ status as a would-be blue county is relatively new. while the democrats have been the party with the most registered voters since 2008, the blue team has grown its gap into a chasm in recent years. it’s more than doubled in the last four years, from roughly 8,500 registered voters to 17,800.
democrats’ advantage has grown by roughly 3,000 since last november alone, when the republican county executive, sheriff, district attorney and clerk all won reelection.
it would seem the county is looking at a blue future, perhaps as soon as next year when legislature seats are back up for grabs.
martin shaffer, a political science professor at marist college, believes it will happen at some point within the next decade. but pending the count of the more than 15,000 absentee ballots returned to the dutchess board of elections this year, democratic voters have yet to flex the muscle of their enrollment.
area experts, as well as leaders of both parties, say there are reasons for that.
"the changes in the population doesn't necessarily mean it's going to change at the polls," said shaffer, the dean of marist’s school of liberal arts. "it's about the party infrastructure, the organization itself, how they get people out to vote."
republicans say the performance and popularity of their elected candidates amplifies their appeal across party lines and energizes their organization for each election cycle. they point to voters this month reelecting sen. sue serino and assemblyman kieran michael lalor as proof of the strength of their incumbents.
“we have very active committees in each of the towns and cities, and i think that really bodes well as a voice, getting the vote out, which is critically important, especially when you’re down in terms of base numbers, which we are,” said michael mccormack, dutchess county's gop chairperson.
republicans, most agree, are more consistent in their voting habits and more likely to vote in non-presidential years, which is when most local races are held. experts say as a growing party, democrats will need time to create the infrastructure the local republicans have now.
democrats, however, argue their voter margin will only grow in the future, as demographics continue to shift and more people leave blue areas like new york city and westchester and settle in the hudson valley. they believe possible changes in election law making it easier to vote absentee will only bolster their turnout in non-presidential election years.
“it’s vitally important for local democrats to help people crack the code of local politics and to show them what’s at stake," said rebecca edwards, democratic minority leader in the county legislature.
and, it may not be up to either party’s voters to decide. rather, it may be a matter of who can reach out more effectively. while there were more than 72,200 registered democrats this year and 54,400 republicans, there were also more than 62,600 residents either without a party affiliation or registered independent.
the role of demographics
there are reasons why dutchess long ago became a republican stronghold.
as with so many facets of the county’s history, ibm played a role. many credit employees of ibm, which for decades was the county’s largest employer, for bolstering the republican rolls in the 1980s. however, over the last two decades, as ibm relinquished its property locally and decreased its workforce, that changed.
a collection of varied businesses filled ibm’s place in the county’s economy, and consequently dutchess demographics became more diverse. the percentage of black and hispanic residents has also increased over the last decade.
much of the county remains rural, which has traditionally leaned republican.
the belief is that democrats’ margin in the county will only continue to grow as the emergence of remote workplaces during the covid-19 pandemic has led more downstate residents to move into the hudson valley.
however, richard born, a political science professor at vassar college, noted some democrats moving into the area may be less liberal than the national trend showing democrats growing increasingly progressive.
born speculates one of the reasons why republicans continue to find success locally is that democrats are more willing to vote for the moderate republicans and cross party lines, helping area incumbents win reelection.
in addition to county executive marc molinaro, who won a third term last year, district attorney william grady, the longest-serving district attorney in new york, has held his seat since 1984. and sheriff butch anderson has run unchallenged since first winning the position in 1999. molinaro’s predecessor, bill steinhaus, served two decades.
“if you’re doing a good job it crosses over from just a one-party decision to a many party decision,” mccormack said.
the pathway to blue
democrats’ formula for rising to power locally is a collection of tasks that fall into the “easier said than done” category: they say they need better candidates who can engage voters, an increase in voter enthusiasm and turnout, and an increase in year-to-year voter consistency.
they say it’s difficult, even with more registered voters, to promote candidates as well as the republicans who are already in power and in the public eye, namely those with the popularity of someone like molinaro.
so how do they do it?
edwards believes there needs to be more "on-ramps" to get people involved in their local governments, whether its running for office, helping with a campaign, learning more about a policy issue or just attending board meetings. democratic legislators recently started a newsletter to inform residents of what they're accomplishing.
elisa sumner, dutchess democratic chairperson, believes the committee does find viable candidates, but lacks the funding to go head-to-head with the "republican machine.”
targeted mailers cost money the committee doesn't have, she said, so they must rely on social media in hopes they reach their audience. fundraising was hampered this year due to covid-19. the county party also doesn't receive much funding from the state party because for democrats, the hudson valley isn't considered a priority, sumner said.
but while money can't replace the effectiveness of good candidates, it also isn’t everything. in the 19th congressional district race this year, rep. antonio delgado outspent republican challenger kyle van de water by more than $2 million. despite being considered a safe bet for reelection, delgado led by only a few thousand voters prior to absentee ballots being counted.
looking at this race, most experts were surprised at the choice of the inexperienced republican candidate, because in order to unseat an incumbent, you have to do it early in their career before they build up seniority.
shaffer said in races such as the district 19 battle, money does makes a difference, but that it won't help move a person from their fixed position. delgado may never win the district by a large margin because those in the rural areas are predetermined to vote republican.
frank mazzella, president of the county’s young democrats organization, said, "if you think about a republican voter, they just show up, realistically and religiously, every november to vote. i don't know why democrats fall off the bandwagon.”
democrats are hoping legislation helps change that. constitutional amendments that allow for no-excuse absentee voting, as was seen during the pandemic this year, and same-day registration were proposed in the state legislature last year and could end up as statewide ballot measures.
edwards believes low voter turnout isn't a result of voter apathy but that democrats who tend to be younger and working class have physical barriers, such as not knowing where to vote if they may have moved recently, or not having a job that allows for time off to vote.
“i’ve talked to democrat voters who work two jobs, have young kids who are home from school during covid, it's a little bit harder for them. whereas, republican voters tend to be older, and they tend to have been more settled here for a long time, so there is no difficulty in finding their polling place or people reminding them to vote,” she said.
the red wall
some credit the prolonged tenures of area elected officials to their performance regardless of party. others point to the moderate nature of many of them, and their ability to play both sides without drawing controversy.
mccormack calls it “good governance,” and credits republicans’ ability to do the work of making phone calls, sending out mailers and connecting with their voters.
he admits it's hard even for the republicans to get people out to vote and it’s been challenging to increase the number of volunteers during covid-19. but he says those that do volunteer are actively engaged in the committee work have been there for a while, which allows for consistency.
pending the absentee ballots, republicans enjoyed a strong showing in this year’s election, with most candidates at least staying close with democratic opponents, if not winning outright. most glaringly, president donald trump owned an election night lead on democrat joe biden, now the president-elect.
molinaro credits voter turnout, which appears to be higher than the last presidential election, to trump, whom he said bring out voters with “a vengeance." he also believes the growing "anti-albany" sentiment helped, referring to the democratic-led state government.
"the people who won worked tirelessly over the years, particular sue serino. they worked hard not only during the campaign, but to provide good services," molinaro said. "they were good people doing a good job and the voters appreciate that in particular and in a highly polarized environment."
the voters in the middle
tara erock registered as an independent back in 2016. before then, the town of poughkeepsie resident had been a democrat.
erock made the change because she felt the democratic national committee made a mistake by not choosing bernie sanders as its candidate.
"it was one of those things that was glaringly obvious, his popularity and that people wanted a change," she said. erock voted for hillary clinton in 2016 and for biden this year.
in 2016 there were 10,415 registered independents in dutchess county and about 49,00 who did not designate a party affiliation. in 2020, that number dropped to 10,263 independents and roughly 52,500 were non-aligned.
shaffer believes independents tend to go with the people they know, giving republicans the edge on name recognition.
in races that are too close to call, these voters could make the difference between winning and losing. as absentee votes get counted, there are 8,000 that make up that wild card.
erock, who didn't vote for molinaro last year, said her focus is on working families and youth. she doesn't believe her town or the county has a lot to offer young people in terms of activities compared to other areas.
"he's everywhere, i give him credit for that, he shows up and shows out, but as far policies and changing things, i haven't seen it," she said.
in competitive races, candidates must rely on what political scientists call the personal vote, which is to do the work to connect with voters. while the personal vote may not be as valuable now since many people vote the party line, it could make all the difference in races with a narrow margin, born said.
"as long as people's needs are being met, and they are listening to their constituents, i think that's the most important thing. but i'm also very skeptical if that is what's happening here," erock said.
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