You would think that when Erie County Democrats plan their Election Night gathering at Statler City on Tuesday, it automatically would qualify as a “victory party.”
Democrats, after all, outnumber Republicans by almost 135,000 voters in Erie County. Winning the three countywide races as well as control of the Legislature should be a sure thing for the Democrats.
But that’s not necessarily the case in Erie County.
Republicans already occupy the county posts of comptroller and sheriff, and they form a majority coalition in the county Legislature. And if you ask Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy his predictions for Tuesday, he sounds downright cheery.
Incumbent Sheriff Timothy B. Howard faces Democratic challenger Bernard A. Tolbert. Incumbent Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr. is challenged by Democrat Vanessa Glushefski. And Michael P. Kearns — a Democrat running on the Republican line — squares off against Democrat Steve Cichon in the election for clerk.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Langworthy said late last week. “The response our candidates get everywhere they go is outstanding, and their campaigns are good.”
Langworthy likes his chances because of the “known commodities” at the top of his ticket. Howard, Mychajliw and Kearns all have won previous elections. He also believes any prowess they demonstrate on Tuesday will filter into the legislative races. He calls them “lead-ins for the down-ballot races.”
“I will take our lead-ins for our down ballot over theirs any day,” he said.
The GOP can pull off upsets because it runs good candidates who appeal to local values, said former Erie County Republican Chairman James P. Domagalski. “Reagan Democrats” such as blue-collar Catholics in suburbs such as Cheektowaga, he said, often provide the edge.
“Core Republican Party values that have governed the party since President Reagan appeal to them, the conservative Democrats,” he said, who are most likely conservative on abortion and other social issues. He believes Buffalo and Western New York do not stand as “bastions of liberalism” like many big cities on the East Coast.
“Our local leadership has supported those values with mainstream candidates who do not face any absolute litmus test,” Domagalski said, “while there has been a hard left turn by the leadership of the local Democratic Party.”
Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner cites another reason for Republican success.
“They tell a lot of lies,” he said. “They have Robo-dials in the [legislative races of] Tom Loughran and Michele Schoeneman warning about people shooting up heroin in their back yards."
“There’s a real nasty tone right now among Republicans,” he added. “Unfortunately, it works.”
Zellner rejects any notion that his party trails in the 2017 elections and looks forward to a Tuesday celebration at the Statler. He believes naysayers and GOP boosters downplay the power of the county Democratic organization and its ability to turn out the vote.
“I’m really optimistic,” he said.
Even without a single competitive race in the Democratic stronghold of Buffalo on Tuesday’s ballot, Zellner still believes the countywide contests will fire up enough enthusiasm to draw his party faithful to the polls. He points to “unprecedented spending” on get-out-the-vote efforts like mail, phone calls and neighborhood canvassing, as well as volunteer efforts.
He is targeting social media and other communication efforts toward those who usually fail to vote in off-year elections. And the party has slated rallies for Saturday at St. John Baptist Church in Buffalo and another for Amherst on Sunday featuring County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and other local Democrats.
“There will be a lot of energy there,” Zellner said.
Still, the challenge facing Erie County Democrats remains rooted in Buffalo. Republicans don’t like to talk about their failure to field a single competitive candidate within the city limits in recent years and in 2017, too. Traditionally, they nominated someone to carry their standard in past elections, even in overwhelmingly Democratic Council districts.
In the election of 2001, Republicans challenged heavily favored Democrats in every Council district, even though a true Republican had not won a Council seat since the late William Marcy in 1983. The pattern held in 2001 as every GOP candidate for Council got trounced.
In the overwhelmingly Democratic Masten District, the Republican that year gained only 539 votes against the 3,814 won by then-Council Member Antoine M. Thompson.
But in recent years, GOP leaders like Langworthy ask why their candidates should “get their brains beat out” in a city with a 7 1/2-to-1 Democratic advantage. The flip side of the strategy produces hardly any contests to draw the city’s overwhelming number of Democrats to the polls.
Combine that with the usually robust races of the suburbs ‑ the elections that draw Democrats but the larger concentration of suburban Republicans as well ‑ and the GOP enjoys an inherent advantage.
Tolbert, the Democratic candidate for sheriff, stands as the candidate possibly with the most to lose as a result of the lack of city enthusiasm. He might normally enjoy significant support from fellow African-Americans, most of whom are Democrats. He has worked feverishly to generate enthusiasm among those voters, though he recognizes the challenge.
“We’ve got to get people in Buffalo to understand their vote is important. Buffalo is critical,” he said. “We don’t have the kind of mayoral race we would like to have, so people need to understand the power of voters is something you can’t diminish or overlook.”
Similar challenges face Cichon, the Democratic candidate for clerk, and Glushefski, the Democrat running for comptroller.
Democrats are also mounting a major effort to regain control of County Hall, where Republicans and a pair of minor party enrollees hold a 6-to-5 advantage. The top legislative race appears to pit Republican challenger Guy Marlette against Democratic incumbent Thomas A. Loughran in District 5, where both candidates have been raising and spending significant amounts of money for major on-air campaigns.
For the first time, Loughran is running without backing from the Conservative Party, which often provides crucial votes in close races.
Another race gaining widespread attention occurs in District 8, where Republican incumbent Ted B. Morton is challenged by Democrat John Bruso.
Other active races include incumbent Independence Lynne M. Dixon against Democrat Michael Quinn in District 9, and Democrat Michele Schoeneman against incumbent Conservative Joseph C. Lorigo in District 10.
Voters will also decide on whether to form a convention in 2019 to rewrite the state Constitution, as well as other propositions to determine if state officials convicted of corruption should lose their pensions, and one allowing for land transfers to accommodate public safety improvements on protected lands of the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserves.