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Democrats are salivating at possibility of reclaiming seat

Mark Grisanti has always known that his re-election to the State Senate this year would prove a challenge, something akin to the Sabres making the playoffs.

Doable -- but daunting.

The Republican's upset victory in 2010 over Democrat incumbent Antoine Thompson in a district sporting a 5-to-1 Democratic advantage qualified for fluke status. But even the new district lines carved out by Senate Republicans -- featuring a strip of Lake Erie shoreline that just might disappear at high tide -- created a district where Democrat voters still outgun him and Republican voters by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

So when the Buffalo senator and his wife shifted into damage control following a fight at the Seneca Niagara Casino last weekend, Democrats could only strut around even more.

"Since that brouhaha at the casino, things have picked up," Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard Lenihan said a few days ago. "We view this as an incident that has not helped Grisanti."

Barroom brawls have a way of doing that for senators. And it means that interest will only intensify in the Senate district that Democrat leaders rank as their No. 1 priority in all of New York this year.

That's why Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens -- in charge of restoring a Democratic majority in the Senate -- has practically camped out in Buffalo, searching for just the right candidate. His party wants the Grisanti seat so badly they must be violating one of those "coveting" commandments.

"This has always been a top target, and it certainly remains a top target for 2012," he said a few days ago, hiding any hint of the giddiness now guiding Democratic hopes.

The GOP is just as serious. Republicans also realize the district could determine control of the Senate, and that Grisanti has developed strong support even among some Democrats. So with the stakes so high on both sides, expect a rip-roaring campaign costing seven figures and dominating the local election scene this year.

Some Democratic names are beginning to surface. Kevin Gaughan, the local attorney and downsizing guru, has been talking with Democrats all week, according to knowledgeable sources. He is certainly well known, chants a mantra that absolutely entices his followers, and after unsuccessful shots at major offices like Congress and mayor of Buffalo, he might find his niche in Albany.

Other Democratic names include Kenmore Mayor Patrick Mang, North Council Member Joseph Golombek, and attorneys Marc Panepinto and Michael Amodeo.

Gaughan, though, could prove a tough sell to the Conservative Party. That party continues to play a role far greater in proportion to its relatively paltry enrollment numbers. That's because the party often provides the winning margin in close elections -- as it did for Grisanti in 2010.

Now Conservative leaders are chatting with Democrat Chuck Swanick, a blast from the past who is scheduled to soon retire from the cab of the CSX locomotive where he has toiled since leaving the County Legislature in 2005. Swanick has always proven a darling of the Conservatives, and it could allow the minor party tail to once again wag the big Democratic dog.

But nothing is easy in Erie County politics, even for Conservatives who pretty much march in lock step.

Grisanti is best known for voting last year to legalize same-sex marriage. And if you're a politician looking to enrage Conservatives, try voting for same-sex marriage.

"He knew going into the vote that if, in fact, he voted for same-sex marriage, he would forgo our endorsement," state Conservative Chairman Michael Long said following Grisanti's 2011 vote. "That's a certainty. That will happen."

But Albany gerrymanderers drew Grisanti's district entirely in Erie County -- nixing Long's ability to veto nominations that cross county lines. And despite his transgression, Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph Lorigo has never closed the door on supporting Grisanti.

Nevertheless, Lorigo and Co. face a tough situation. The Rev. Kevin Backus, senior pastor of Bible Presbyterian Church and Grand Island Conservative chairman, is threatening to run an enrolled Conservative who opposes same-sex marriage should the leadership back Grisanti. And there is reason to believe Backus could get his hands on lots of money from opponents of same-sex marriage.

In addition, backing Swanick might ensure a Democratic majority in the Senate -- not exactly on the Conservative priority list.

And those familiar with the situation say there would be little enthusiasm among Albany Democrats for his candidacy. They point out that the Conservative line cost them the Thompson seat and the Senate majority in 2010, and that a vote against same-sex marriage doesn't fit their agenda.

Grisanti has not retreated. He quickly jumped in front of the story, and emphasizes that he nor nobody else has been charged in the incident.

One of his top advisers, former Niagara County Republican Chairman Henry Wojtaszek, insists many voters will sympathize if the facts eventually corroborate that he joined the melee to protect his wife.

"It's a storm he can weather," Wojtaszek said. "And he worked extremely hard in doing a great job for the citizens of his district."

And, oh yes -- Grisanti has squirreled away about $284,000 in his campaign finance account.

Still, there is worry in GOP Land. Grisanti has money and smart advisers like Wojtaszek and former County Executive Joel Giambra. That's why some sources say the powers that be have already discussed a possible replacement candidate with Jack Quinn III, the former Assemblyman, just in case the Grisanti situation implodes.

Add to the mix Carl Paladino, the 2010 candidate for governor who commands legions of tea party followers and has a few dollars to spend, too. He has already pronounced that Grisanti must go.

"We will primary good people against bad Republican legislators," Paladino said about Grisanti's votes on tax policy. "We will send a message to [Senate Majority Leader] Dean Skelos that times have changed."

It will take a while for all these subsurface forces to boil over. The delay in finalizing district lines, for example, has put the entire situation on hold.

But while district lines remain undrawn, battle lines are in place.

Nothing like a Friday night brawl in a gambling den to fire up the Erie County political scene.