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Dems claim control of Senate with victory in Skelos’ old seat

ALBANY – Democrats were claiming victory Tuesday night in a special election to fill the Long Island Senate seat made vacant by the recent conviction of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

The apparent victory by Todd Kaminsky, a current member of the Assembly, over Republican Christopher McGrath, would give the Democrats a one-seat, mathematical edge in the 63-member Senate, though Republicans have forged deals with several Democrats to keep them in control. Whether those deals hold firm in the weeks and months ahead remains to be answered.

With votes still being counted, Republicans late Tuesday cautioned that paper ballots also still need to be counted in the contest.

At midnight, with 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Kaminsky had 49.96 percent to McGrath’s 48.82 percent, a difference of just 780 votes out of 68,000 total cast, according to the Nassau County elections board.

The Nassau County race saw millions of dollars funneled to both candidates in less than eight weeks and, for Kaminsky, last minute robo calls by President Obama and even actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks, the Democrat’s great uncle. The Senate has been the Republican Party’s lone foothold in the power structure of state government.

The Kaminsky victory in the Senate Ninth District race promises to put pressure on breakaway Democrats who have helped keep the GOP in control and gives the Democrats perhaps some tail wind going into the fall elections as the two sides engage in what portends to be a fierce battle for control of the Senate and the power over everything from legislation to the state budget process.

The race has pre-occupied Senate Republicans and Democrats for two months, and it had a major impact on how the Republicans negotiated the recently adopted state budget, such as their acceptance of a sizable jump in the state’s minimum wage.

The Senate, before the race, had 31 Republicans and 31 Democrats, plus the one seat made vacant by the ouster of Skelos in December when he was convicted on federal corruption charges.

The GOP, however, runs the Senate because of deals it has struck with several Democrats. One Brooklyn Democrat, Sen. Simcha Felder, conferences with the Republicans, and generally votes with them on bills; and five members of the Independent Democratic Conference also have an alliance with the GOP. The mainline Democratic conference has 25 members, a number that resulted in them being cut out of the fiscal negotiations.

With political alliances often fleeting at the Capitol, a loss in the Senate Ninth for the GOP was seen before the election as presenting a major test for Republicans to keep Felder and the IDC senators in line.

More importantly, the Senate Ninth contest will again be a battleground in the November general election, when it will be joined by other races as the Democrats hope to use higher turnout in a presidential election year to their advantage in a state where they hold a two-to-one voter enrollment edge over Republicans. Among the races will be a Western New York district put into major play with the recent decision by freshman Sen. Marc Panepinto, a Buffalo Democrat, to not seek re-election.

On paper, the Senate Ninth favors a Democrat. The district has 94,600 Democrats and 75,600 Republicans. To fill the seat of Skelos, a convicted felon, Democrats turned to Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor who in 2012 got the federal corruption conviction of then-Sen. Pedro Espada, a once-powerful Bronx Democrat.

While McGrath was up by eight points in a poll last week, both sides privately acknowledged the contest was a political crap shoot given the high voter turnout from people in both parties drawn to the presidential primary. Adding further mystery was a decision to use two different voting machines – one for the presidential primary and another for the Senate race – that promised to disrupt usual predictions about “drop-off rates” as some people who vote in the presidential primary don’t bother going to the second machine to vote in the Senate contest.

The Senate Ninth race became the subject of intense focus by Democrats and Republicans from far outside the Nassau County location of the race. The two candidates, the Albany-based central campaign accounts of the Senate Republicans and Democrats, and a Washington, D.C.-based GOP fund, spent a combined $3.6 million on the race. That does not include the expected large expenditures during the campaign’s last two weeks. It also does not include nearly $1 million that has come into the various entities involved in financing the two campaigns during the past 10 days, or money spent by local party organizations, minor political parties and an array of interest groups and individuals.

Kaminsky was endorsed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, though the governor did not campaign for him.