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Will city Democrats vote?

One of the most significant events of the 2008 election for Erie County executive was really a non-event.

It occurred on that summer day when no Republican in the City of Buffalo filed to run for office -- no Common Council, no County Legislature, no City Court. Other than one valiant Republican named Sergio Rodriguez competing in the Council's Niagara District, city voters will consider no contests in their own neighborhoods.

One more reason for an already disaffected electorate to stay at home. And it's a major reason for the optimism surrounding Republican Chris Collins' bid for county executive on Tuesday.

With no local contests driving the city's Democratic base to the polls, Republican strategists hope the plethora of local contests in the Republican suburbs will carry the day for Collins. The theory is simple: Democrats in the city won't vote; Republicans in the 'burbs will.

Cynics say that fielding no GOP candidates in the city was all part of a grand plan. It never happened before, they say. The party always attracted some poor soul willing to carry the flag. In fact, the party was downright vocal about many of its past city candidates.

Buffalo Republican Chairman Dennis Ryan, however, says it's a recognition that the party simply can no longer compete in heavily Democratic Buffalo.

"There's nothing I haven't tried -- from cutting deals to endorsing Democrats to working with [former Mayor Jim] Griffin," he said back in August. "This city is not going in our direction right now."

However it came about, it all ranks as a major problem for Democrat Jim Keane. With contests in Amherst and other GOP strongholds expected to inflate those turnout totals, Keane must cross his fingers that many city Dems will even bother to vote.

Maybe that's the reason that State Supreme Court Justice Rose Sconiers took out a big ad in The Buffalo News last week. Though she is cross-endorsed and virtually assured of re-election following a stunning two-vote plurality -- Democratic Chairman Len Lenihan and GOP Chairman Jim Domagalski -- she dropped substantial bucks on an ad that bolsters Democratic Headquarters' hope that her city supporters will vote for Keane, too.

Lenihan says Republicans are not exactly sobbing over the lack of city contests, but warns they must deal with a strong Democratic operation in Buffalo. He points to substantial organizations maintained by Mayor Byron Brown, Rep. Brian Higgins, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, unions and his troops -- all ready to roll.

In addition, be prepared for automated phone calls from the likes of Sen. Chuck Schumer, Brown, Higgins and former county executive Dennis Gorski, whom we are told proclaimed his endorsement for Keane at an April fund raiser -- not exactly pre-election in Niagara Square like for the mayor in 2006, but they'll apparently take it.

"Do we have a challenge in front of us? Yes," Lenihan said last week. "Are we rarin' to go? Absolutely."

Even Lenihan acknowledges that Collins has struck an anti-government and anti-politics nerve among Erie County voters. He says it all hearkens to incumbent County Executive Joel Giambra -- the new Darth Vader for both parties.

"Collins has simply attacked the entire political system," he said, "and because of Giambra, the good ones get hurt as well."

All is not lost for the Dems. Hey, they still have 120,000 more of them than the other guys. And they've got money and troops.

But it remains ironic that with all those numbers, they must now shift into overdrive just to get votes from their own.

The GOP has already scored a major tactical and strategic victory in suppressing the city vote. Now Lenihan, Keane and company must reply with an even better one of their own.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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