On the afternoon following Election Day last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made sure to hit a couple of upstate communities to tout passage of his casino expansion plan.
But not in Western New York, where election results showed little for the governor to celebrate.
Nobody suggests Cuomo is in trouble, or that Western New York voters will reject him in 2014 as they did in 2010. Most polls show him still flying high throughout the state.
But Tuesday’s results are raising warning flags for 2014. The failure of several key issues closely identified with the governor now pose questions for a Democrat incumbent who has watched his upstate popularity decline since he took office three years ago.
Those warnings include:
• Republicans gained the Legislature in Erie County, even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1 in the county.
• An incumbent Republican sheriff who bashed the governor’s gun control law from January through Election Day and easily won re-election.
• Republicans electing a county executive, clerk and a Legislature majority in Chautauqua County, where Democrats post a slight enrollment edge.
But most focus remains on Cuomo’s signature policy issue on the ballot: casino expansion that was rejected in all eight Western New York counties (plus 15 other upstate counties and Manhattan), although it did pass statewide. Cuomo also lost nine western counties in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
After Cuomo’s intense focus on this region over the past several years, handing out millions of dollars in state money and promising an economic rebirth, a question arises after Tuesday’s results: Are people in Western New York hearing him?
Carl P. Paladino, Cuomo’s opponent in 2010, called the local results of the gambling amendment proposition a “major message from Western New York.”
“The whole casino thing is all about soaking more money out of poor people in economically challenged upstate New York,” Paladino said. “Upstate has said ‘Stop bleeding us for your liberal programs and agenda.’ ”
Paladino also says Cuomo’s SAFE Act has become a “big mistake” and pointed to Republican Timothy B. Howard’s overwhelming victory in Tuesday’s election for Erie County sheriff as a “real slap in the face” to Cuomo. Howard’s promise to never enforce the Cuomo gun law emerged as a major issue in the sheriff’s race.
“He’s learning there are lots of Democrats who have guns and hunt,” Paladino said of Cuomo. “Maybe this is a grass-roots beginning of changes in the Republican and Democratic parties statewide. The pendulum is swinging, and I think we’re starting to see a rebound now.”
A Paladino ally, state Conservative Chairman Michael R. Long, agrees.
“All politics is local, and I think the local political results in Western New York repudiated Andrew Cuomo,” he said.
Howard, who posted an impressive 52 percent victory in his three-way contest, is adamant about what the results say.
“If Albany and the governor want to win the support of the people of Erie County, they’ve got to listen to us,” the sheriff said. “Nobody seems to measure the feeling. And it’s not about guns; it’s about the Constitution.”
The post-election spin is varied.
Republicans say the governor has not adequately made his case with Western New York voters and that, in the end, his policy positions remain out of touch with the region.
But Democrats say Tuesday’s results were local in nature and do not reflect upon Cuomo. They say there is plenty of time to close the deal with area voters before next fall and that he has yet to unleash any of his massive campaign chest – now topping at least $28 million – to help move voters.
“No candidate ran on state issues,” said Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo. “They all ran on local issues and not state politics.”
Ryan believes local voters rejected the casino measure because they fundamentally oppose casinos.
“I believe a lot of Western New Yorkers don’t believe it’s good economic development,” he said.
For others, it was a distant issue since the region wasn’t in line to get a casino.
“We didn’t stand to in any way benefit from it or be harmed by it,” Ryan added.
He also said the GOP showing was largely the result of district lines that he believes creates a disadvantage for urban areas – and therefore Democrats.
In addition, Cuomo supporters say Western New York’s rejection of the casino referendum reflects the attitude of a region already home to casino gambling, as well as concerns that more casinos in the state could hurt the Seneca Nation’s gambling halls, more than anything to do with Cuomo.
“The election returns in Erie showed overwhelming support for incumbents – both Democratic and Republicans,” said an aide to the governor who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized, “which is a testament to voters believing the county is on the right track, making progress, and voters wanting to stay with the current leadership.”
Peter Kauffmann, spokesman for the Democratic State Committee, said the governor feels good about his standing in Western New York.
“All incumbents across the state this past election ran on New York’s progress – which is most attributable to one person: Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and his agenda of fiscal responsibility and social progress, which is moving this state forward,” Kauffmann said. “Gov. Cuomo will be at the top of the Democratic ticket next year and will lead us to victory.”
Still, some argue that anecdotal evidence suggests local Republicans’ showing Tuesday and the casino measure voting locally stemmed from lingering anger over the New York SAFE Act, the gun control statute Cuomo pushed in January.
Besides the anti-SAFE Act signs dotting many area lawns 10 months after the bill became law, gun advocates say conservative voters, in particular, took out their wrath on Cuomo by ensuring the Erie County sheriff was re-elected and Cuomo’s much-desired casino plan was rejected by area voters.
“He really bit an alligator in the butt, and the alligator is turning,” said Harold “Budd” Schroeder, chairman of the Shooters Committee on Public Education, a Buffalo gun rights group.
Schroeder believes Cuomo will pay a price in 2014 when he comes asking for votes.
“I’ve been with SCOPE almost 50 years, and I have never seen the apathy diminish the way it has since the SAFE Act came in,” he said. “We’re not giving up, and we’re going to be pushing this every chance we get.”
Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy noted it was no accident that state GOP Chairman Edward F. Cox launched a major criticism of the governor in Buffalo on Wednesday, and likewise for Cuomo to reschedule a fundraising event originally set on the same night directly across the hall at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.
He said Cuomo’s frequent visits to Buffalo underscore his inability to “connect.”
“He can come here every day of the week if he wants to,” Langworthy said. “But people are not buying what the governor is selling.”
Langworthy said polls might show Cuomo winning Western New York if the election were held today, but called such an effort a “theoretical match-up in a vacuum.” He said the GOP will offer a genuine challenge next year.
“This governor will not win by acclamation,” he said. “I can guarantee that.”