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Democrats outnumber Republicans in Senate but GOP retains control

ALBANY – This is a town of asterisks.

Even though Democrats appear to outnumber Republicans in the state Senate after a special election Tuesday on Long Island, Republican senators have brokered a deal with a Brooklyn Democrat, who conferences with the GOP and gives them the one extra vote they need to remain in control in the 63-member chamber.

A spokesman for Sen. Simcha Felder, the Brooklyn Democrat, said Wednesday morning that the senator “plans on continuing to caucus with the Republicans.”

The GOP also has an alliance deal with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference. That group’s leader, Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat, did not return calls for comment. That independent Democratic group, given its small number, had outsized influence in the recently concluded state budget talks, and its role can only expand if Democrat Todd Kaminsky’s 800-vote lead over Republican Christopher McGrath holds up in the special Senate election on Long Island.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Klein offered “congratulations to the apparent winner, Todd Kaminsky.”

Control of the Senate is certain to have ramifications during the fall elections, when Senate Republicans likely will raise the “New York City” card to warn against a Democratic takeover of the chamber. Upstate is the Senate Republican stronghold, and the GOP makes the case that the region would get little attention in Albany if the Democrats add the Senate to the New York City-led Democratic conference in the Assembly. Senate Republicans, for instance, took credit in the new budget for ensuring upstate enjoyed a “parity” deal with downstate for a multi-year transportation capital program.

The Republicans have also enjoyed a special relationship with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who in 2012 signed off on a 10-year redistricting program in which Republicans carved new Senate district lines to try to ensure their political survival. The Republicans, though, face an unyielding tide in a state with an increasingly Democratic tilt; there are now 5.8 million registered Democrats to 2.7 million Republican voters across New York.

The legislative session ends in June, and Republicans say Senate rules adopted in 2015 make it effectively impossible for any sort of Democratic takeover now if the GOP’s current Democratic alliances fall apart. Those rules require a three-fifths vote in order to start mid-session process to elect a new Senate leader.

Democrats insist there is a way to get around that three-fifths margin, though on Wednesday they did not appear to be angling for a floor fight that could disrupt the end of the session.

“I wouldn’t predict floor fights,” said Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the leader of the mainline group of 26 Democrats.

“At this point, I’m really pleased with the numerical reality that we are the majority. It remains to be seen how that will be handled in the upcoming weeks,” she said in an interview.

The special election to fill the Nassau County seat occurred after the corruption conviction of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Vote counting in the Senate 9th district race between Kaminsky and McGrath is not over.

About 2,800 absentee ballots were mailed out prior to the election. So far, about 900 ballots have been returned from registered Democrats and 700 from Republicans. Unless a judge orders otherwise, counting those ballots is not expected to begin before next Wednesday. Neither side knew how many affidavit ballots are outstanding.

“This is going to take a while,” Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican who heads the Senate GOP central campaign committee, said of the Senate 9th District paper ballot process.

But, given the machine voting edge for Kaminsky and how the paper ballots appear to be skewing Democratic, Stewart-Cousins said she is “positive” that the Republican McGrath lost.

“This race is over” for the Republicans, added Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who heads the Senate Democratic campaign committee. “They’re just delaying at this point because they’re afraid they’ll lose the majority.”

“Every vote should be counted, but they’re not closing the gap,” he said.

Kaminsky cannot take office until election officials certify the results.

Stewart-Cousins said the Democrats’ claimed victory on the Long Island race will help with fundraising for the fall general election contests and with recruiting some fence-sitting Democrats to run for the Senate.

One person Senate Democrats want to run is Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, who is weighing a campaign for the 60th District Senate seat being vacated by freshman Sen. Marc Panepinto, also a Buffalo Democrat.

Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs has already declared his campaign on the Republican side.

“I think Sean has got to be looking at this and saying, ‘Hmm,’ ” Stewart-Cousins said after the Democratic showing on Long Island.

With no Republicans in statewide office and the Democrats firmly in control of the Assembly, the Senate is the last bastion of power for the Republicans. Whoever controls the Senate gets to determine what bills are passed and holds enormous sway over what gets in – and not in – the annual state budget that sets tax and spending policies.

Republicans were trying to put a good face on the Long Island results. Young was asked if New York is witnessing the coming end of GOP control in the Senate.

“No, we still have very strong incumbents and we’re going to not only keep the majority but grow the majority in the fall,” she said.

Young said the Senate GOP has a “great relationship” with both Felder, the Brooklyn Democrat, and the group of five independent Democrats that she says will continue.

The Republicans are not conceding the Senate 9th seat, Young said.

“These things can take weeks and sometimes even months,” she said of the audit of machine votes and counting of paper ballots. “It’s too early to predict, but we’ll be counting every vote.”

As for losing its control this session, Young dismissed the notion.

“First of all, the Senate rules won’t allow that,” she said, then noting the alliances with the six breakaway Democrats.

“We still have the majority,” she added.