On the face of things, Erie County appears as a most hospitable place for Democrats seeking office.
Upstate New York’s largest metropolitan area boasts a strong Democratic tradition, unified party leadership and – most of all – 133,756 more Democrats than Republicans.
But voters once again on Tuesday showed that anything can happen in Erie County. Despite the overwhelming advantage in Democratic registration, Republicans retained the three countywide posts of sheriff, comptroller and clerk.
Granted, Lancaster-Cheektowaga voters in a swing district returned the County Legislature to Democrats for the first time in four years, and Democrats scored convincing victories in towns like Amherst.
But Tuesday’s results underscored Erie County’s reputation as a place where Republicans can – and do ‑ win elections in blue turf.
“It’s a ticket splitting county,” said Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy, noting Democratic success on Tuesday in other major New York counties like Westchester and Nassau.
Veteran Buffalo pollster Barry Zeplowitz adds that voters everywhere, and especially here, are more and more apt to shop around.
“People vote for who they like and who they want,” he said. “They’re not tied to party lines any more.”
In the past, Republicans like former Gov. George E. Pataki and former Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato discovered Erie County’s ability to stray from the Democratic line and pounced. President Trump, meanwhile, came within six points of winning the county for the GOP last year while New York State as a whole flocked to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“People say he didn’t win the county. He didn’t compete here, but his message resonated,” presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway said during a January visit to Buffalo. “This is a great example of a region where he did not show up here past the primaries, but his message carried on.”
Veteran observers list a host of reasons for GOP competitiveness in Erie County, including:
• The lack of general election contests in heavily Democratic Buffalo, continuing a recent trend of depressed city turnout and Republicans exploiting their heavier enrollment in the suburbs.
• The occasional conservative tilt of big suburban towns like Cheektowaga, Lancaster and West Seneca, where Republican Sheriff Timothy B. Howard won or came very close in Tuesday’s election.
• New Yorkers’ ability to support candidates endorsed by major parties on minor lines like Conservative. While the Democratic candidates for sheriff, comptroller and clerk all won or came very close in their head-to-head, Democrat-versus-Republican contests Tuesday, Republicans prevailed via voters turning to the same candidates on five minor party lines.
• The tendency on Tuesday for unaffiliated voters to trend Republican.
• The inability of either party to motivate its members on Election Day compared to the past.
“Headquarters are a thing of the past; they have lost their power,” said former Common Council President George K. Arthur, a Democrat.
Lobbyist Carl J. Calabrese, a former Republican Tonawanda supervisor and deputy county executive, says the attraction of minor party lines ‑ especially Conservative - cannot be overemphasized. Erie County’s sizeable contingent of “Reagan Democrats” often join the Conservatives, especially when they just can’t bring themselves to vote on the GOP line.
As a result, Republicans like Pataki, D’Amato, former Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco and former County Executives Edward V. Regan and Edward J. Rutkowski all enjoyed electoral success over the years. Indeed, current County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz ranks as only the second Democrat to win the post since it was created in 1961.
Calabrese says countywide candidates recognize strong Democratic fervor in Buffalo, but look to the “golden triangle of Cheetowaga, Lancaster and West Seneca” as Democratic strongholds that will at least listen to a Republican ‑ though it remains a challenge.
“If Republicans in Erie County are down about 135,000, they have to be clicking on all eight cylinders,” Calabrese said, “because the majority party can win on six.”
The “golden triangle” pattern held to a significant degree on Tuesday in Cheektowaga, a Democratic enclave of ethnic, working class Catholics who often return to their Reagan Democrat roots. In last week’s countywide elections, out of the 14,216 Cheektowagans who went to the polls, only 62 more voted for Democratic sheriff candidate Bernard A. Tolbert. Democratic clerk candidate Steven J. Cichon beat Republican Michael P. Kearns 7,625 to 5,976, but Republican Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr. defeated Democrat Vanessa Glushefski 7,265 to 6,331 in the race for comptroller.
Cheektowaga Supervisor Diane M. Benczkowski, also vice chairwoman of the town’s Democratic Committee, said party volunteers worked tirelessly during the campaign to bring home the Democratic vote. But she also said her constituents “do their homework.”
“Though they may be blue collar, they believe in some Republican values,” she said. “Times are very tough for our residents making ends meet, and they tell me that when I’m doing the budget.
“They say the candidates can’t keep spending, spending, spending,” she added.
Arthur, the former Council president who ran for mayor of Buffalo in 1985, said much has changed since he started in politics 60 years ago. Both parties operated under a more rigid structure, he said, especially under former Democratic chairmen like Peter J. Crotty and Joseph F. Crangle. In those days, he said, voters responded.
“Back then you had people who were not afraid to identify with a party, Democrat or Republican,” he said. “Today you don’t know one candidate from the other.”
Calabrese noted that Republicans will probably continue working in the suburbs, especially when their county leaders show no inclination to ever run Buffalo candidates again in a city where Democrats enjoy a 7 1/2 to 1 registration advantage.
And, he said, all sorts of variables enter every campaign and must be taken into account.
“There are issues, candidates make mistakes, all kinds of things,” he said. “And you have to take into account incumbency, fund-raising, conveying the right message, grass roots organization and strategy.
“It’s why we campaign,” he said.