On the surface, Senate Republicans should not have an upstate problem.
The conference controlled its fate in the last round of redistricting, enabling them to choose their voters and ensconce their incumbents in a cocoon of enrolled Republicans.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo remains deeply unpopular in the rural and suburban communities and threat of New York City Democrats running Albany remains a potent concern. More tangibly, the conference kept a Southern Tier district in the GOP column with Fred Akshar defeating Cuomo’s preferred candidate for the job, Democrat Barbara Fiala.
Republicans in 2014 swept out not just Democratic incumbents in key battleground Senate districts in the Mohawk and Hudson Valleys, but the party did well in Congressional races as well.
And yet, there are problems on the horizon for the party among conservative activists who had taken to heart pledges candidates last year made: Complete repeals of the gun control law known as the SAFE Act and the controversial Common Core education standards.
To be sure, the battleground for control of the Senate next year will likely be Long Island. But restive voters upstate in an election season that’s already gearing up with a strong anti-incumbent, anti-establishment vibe, could throw a curve ball at the Republicans.
In a statewide context, the SAFE Act is a non-issue. Approved in 2013 in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, the measure continues to enjoy broad majority support. Cuomo is so bolstered by his push for the law that he’s taking it on a national road show.
Common Core remains a stickier wicket for Albany, with polls showing both upstate and suburban voters deeply concerned about the impact the standards are having on their children. Perhaps sensing the political danger after 20 percent of students opted out of April round of standardized testing, Cuomo announced a task force to consider potential changes.
Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has indicated he would prefer to have the task force act on the changes and not have lawmakers take up the measures.
“The task force is with an eye toward looking what have we done, where have gone and where are we going in the future,” Flanagan said on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom last month. “What can and should happen is you get a lot of work done at the Board of Regents level and SED, state Education Department, and if need be, which I think is unnecessary, legislative intervention.”
Even so, both the SAFE Act and Common Core resonate with activists on the local level. They represent differing, but related forms of government overreach. And Republican incumbents, especially in the narrowly divided state Senate, haven’t done enough.
Consider this YouTube video of activists protesting freshman Sen. Sue Serino, a Republican who defeated incumbent Democrat Terry Gipson.
In the video, about a dozen or so protesters are seen picketing an event Serino is due to appear at. They’re angry pledges made to repeal the SAFE Act and pull the state out of Common Core haven’t been met. They promise to find a challenger for her next year.
Broadly, they’re upset Serino voted for a budget that included “funding” for the SAFE Act and Common Core.
The spending plan itself included general support for criminal justice expenses, including Division of Criminal Justice, which administers aspects of the law. As Republican Sen. Patrick Gallivan’s office pointed out, the approved budget included a $7 million reduction in funding a key aspect of the law: The ammunition database.
Then consider this video posted in which an anti-SAFE Act advocate discusses the memorandum of understanding released earlier this summer by the Senate GOP, in which Cuomo and the Republicans agreed to not act on the creation of an ammunition database.
The conference at the time insisted they scored a big victory in scaling back the law; Cuomo has said the agreement just stipulates the database won’t be funded until the technology is available.
For gun control supporters, the MOU was thin gruel.
Nozzolio, a staunch opponent of the SAFE Act, was forced to defend the mere placement of the bill on the floor for a vote by then-Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Nozzolio at one point claims a Democratic majority enabled the bill to pass (the caller correctly points out the Republicans retained power in the Senate during the majority coalition with the Independent Democratic Conference).
The call ends politely enough, but with a pledge by the caller (who isn’t a Nozzolio constituent) to fund a primary against him.
Conservative activists appear to want some sort of tangible victory in Albany or at least the find of confrontation at the state Capitol that’s occurred in Washington. Republican Assemblyman Bill Nojay, a conservative talk radio host in the Rochester area, was disappointed the Senate Republicans this year didn’t link the passage of new rent control laws to a SAFE Act repeal.
Republicans still have a lot going for them, especially when it comes to primaries. While their critics have vocal passion, the Senate GOP has money and resources.
But they may not want to take upstate New York for granted, especially with their narrowly divided majority.
An October Siena College poll found voters statewide are split — 42 percent evenly — on having a favorable versus unfavorable view of the Senate. But when it comes to political ideology, a plurality of conservative voters — 48 percent — have an unfavorable view, as do half of the Republican and upstate voters polled.
The Republican majority in the Senate has, over time, been chipped away by conservative challenges. The conference lost Sen. Stephen Saland in 2012 — who represented the district Serino now holds — thanks in part to the challenge from Conservative Party nominee Neil DiCarlo.
Republican Sen. Mark Grisanti, who like Saland backed the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2011 and later voted for the SAFE Act, was unseated in crowded race that included Conservative challenger Kevin Stocker.
In both instances, it wasn’t the conservative candidate who won the seat, but a Democratic one.
The conventional wisdom is the Senate Republicans are sailing into political headwinds with a presidential election and a New Yorker likely to head up the ticket. But it’s also possible the other, less thought of concern for the Senate GOP, is an anti-incumbent wave.