Erie County Conservatives dealt a major blow to State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti's re-election hopes Thursday evening by spurning the Buffalo Republican and endorsing Democrat Charles M. Swanick.
In a move that could ultimately determine which major party controls the State Senate, the often-influential minor party denied its line to Grisanti and reunited with Swanick, a longtime Conservative friend who served 26 years in the County Legislature before retiring in 2005.
A Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat again, Swanick now has the top minor party line in a district where a big Democratic majority enrollment is expected to give him the upper hand -- no matter how reapportionment redraws its boundaries.
The Conservative decision also marks a decisive rejection of Grisanti, who achieved his upset victory in 2010 on the strength of the Conservative line. He then infuriated some in the party with his vote last year in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.
"Chuck Swanick is pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, pro-Second Amendment and a fiscal conservative," said Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo.
"I understand the argument made to us that the Republican Senate may hang in the balance," he said. "Unfortunately, a number of people on my board feel the Republican Senate has not been there for the job we expect them to do."
Though Grisanti and his wife, Maria, have been the subject of national media scrutiny in recent days following their involvement in a Feb. 10 brawl at the Seneca Niagara Casino, the incident appears to have carried little weight in Thursday's decision.
Lorigo said Grisanti raised the sharpest Conservative ire for breaking his promise not to vote for same-sex marriage and voting to impose a "millionaires tax" that the chairman said was disguised as a middle-class tax break.
"Clearly to Conservatives, it was a tax hike," Lorigo said.
"The worst problem he has is the question about his integrity," he added, referring to Grisanti's promise to the party not to vote for the marriage bill.
Republicans, sensing the impact a Conservative nod could have in a district election that could determine control of the Senate, furiously attempted to sway the party's Executive Committee in favor of Grisanti.
Lorigo said that in the past few days he received phone calls from Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, as well as former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence.
Lorigo said he also received a personal visit Wednesday afternoon from former County Executive Joel A. Giambra, a top adviser to Grisanti, as well as Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane.
He said a few members of the Executive Committee favored Grisanti, but the majority was disappointed in the rookie Republican senator's overall performance.
"What he needed to do was to visibly come in our direction," he said.
The Conservative Party's move raises questions about what path Republicans will follow, especially given the gravity of the situation for the party. Several sources have reported that former Assemblyman Jack F. Quinn III, who lost his Republican bid for the Senate in 2010, could re-emerge as an emergency candidate for the GOP.
The same sources also have suggested that a Quinn candidacy could persuade Swanick to withdraw, paving the way for united Republican and Conservative support for Quinn.
Swanick has not returned several phone calls placed over the past few days.
The Swanick endorsement appears to have quelled talk of a primary challenge by an enrolled Conservative if the party had endorsed Grisanti.
The Conservative Party also granted a crucial endorsement to Democratic incumbent Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, who is seeking a second term.
"He has a very, very high moral degree in terms of attention to his post and is nowhere near as political as DAs in the past," Lorigo said, citing Sedita's "integrity" during more than three years in office.
The committee also backed Republican State Sens. Michael H. Ranzenhofer of Amherst and Patrick Gallivan of Elma for re-election, Democrat Amy C. Martoche for Buffalo City Court and Republican Kevin M. Carter for Erie County Family Court.