In his new role as New York State Democratic chairman, Mayor Byron W. Brown has come to know every twist and turn on Hillary Clinton’s campaign trail.
He’s stumped for his fellow New Yorker in the presidential battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Florida.
He dispatched local troops to work for Clinton in swing states. And in New York, he is confident the deep blue state, buoyed by the millions of New York City Democrats, will turn out for the former senator Tuesday.
But the results may prove different in Brown’s own backyard, in his first presidential election as state Democratic chairman. Republican and Democratic observers alike say Donald Trump is running well in overwhelmingly Democratic Erie County. Some predict he will win Erie County. Others scoff at the idea.
But few dispute Trump’s local strength, or that Erie County could vote Republican for the first time since Richard Nixon in 1972. And while a Trump majority in Erie County would not affect the delivery of the state’s 29 electoral votes to Clinton, a GOP victory for the first time in 44 years would occur on Brown’s watch and provide fodder for Republican bragging rights.
“I’m excited about the possibility, and that’s why we have hundreds of volunteers out there looking for every Trump voter we can find,” Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said. “There’s a great chance we can win this county.”
Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican and one of the Manhattan billionaire’s national spokesmen, predicts Erie County going to Trump. So does Carl P. Paladino, the 2010 GOP candidate for governor and now Trump’s honorary campaign co-chairman in New York.
“I am so certain,” he said of Erie County. “I’m a street guy. I’m on the streets all the time, and I can tell you very honestly, we’re going to win Erie County.”
Brown and his allies dismiss the idea and predict Democrats will come home Tuesday. But several factors support the possibility of Trump taking Erie County, including:
• The local victory of Trump-like Paladino in 2010. The Buffalo developer and candidate for governor not only won Democratic Erie County with 58 percent of the vote, but also eight other western counties despite Democrat Andrew M. Cuomo’s statewide triumph.
• Trump’s big victory in Erie County’s Republican presidential primary in April.
• Clinton’s narrow victory over Bernie Sanders in Erie County in the Democratic primary, sustained only by the effort of Brown’s local apparatus in the City of Buffalo.
• A history of occasional Republican victories in solid Democratic turf such as Cheektowaga, West Seneca, Hamburg and Tonawanda.
The notion that Trump could prevail in such a Democratic stronghold as Erie County might seem ludicrous. On the day after former President Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment, for example, he and Hillary Clinton came to Buffalo and packed what is now Key Bank Center, demonstrating popular Clinton support here.
County enrollment rolls show an advantage of 136,000 more Democratic voters than registered Republicans. And in the last two presidential elections, Democrat Barack Obama beat John McCain by almost 64,000 votes in 2008 and Mitt Romney by more than 60,000 in 2012.
But Erie County – especially in its blue-collar suburban enclaves – can and does vote Republican. As Langworthy often points out, the Democratic county has recently elected a GOP majority in the County Legislature and Republicans as clerk, comptroller and sheriff.
“Trump has hit the right notes for people here in Western New York,” Langworthy said, “because we still have a 50-year lineage of losing population and jobs. Trump provides hope and opportunity for voters who think we need to start over.”
Brown knows what lies ahead. As Cuomo’s hand-picked state chairman, he is the first from Buffalo since Joseph F. Crangle left the statewide helm in 1975. Brown insists he is focused on Erie County even while traveling around the country for Clinton, but he knew the race would tighten here.
“We felt all along that, if there was anywhere that the Republican challenger could be competitive to Hillary Clinton, it would be here in Erie County,” he said, pointing to the past successes of Paladino and other statewide Republicans.
But Brown said he expects voters in big towns such as Amherst to support Clinton as well as the City of Buffalo and that his “gut feeling” points to a Clinton win here.
“We’re not worried about Erie County,” Brown said, “and I think the margin will be wider than anyone expected.”
Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner also acknowledges Trump’s inroads locally but does not concede “that we have a red county here.”
Trump will lose Erie County, he said, “because people finally see him as a snake oil salesman.”
The county chairman feels no pressure in his backyard and recognizes Brown’s obligation to Clinton in states where the votes count for more than bragging rights.
“We want to win here,” Zellner said, “but on a larger strategic level, he needs to be in the battleground states.”
Former Common Council President George K. Arthur wonders, however, if Brown will muster his forces for Clinton as effectively in the Tuesday election as he did in the primary in April. Though the mayor received high marks for turning out his East Side base and winning Erie County for Clinton against Sanders, Arthur said he sees no similar local efforts for Clinton in the final days before election.
“I don’t see any activity,” Arthur said. “Usually, this is the time for phone calls and the district committeemen who are closest to the people to be getting out the vote.”
Arthur described Erie County as a “conservative area” that could go for Trump without a major turnout effort as what Brown orchestrated in April.
“I don’t know if the mayor realizes it,” Arthur said, “but even though he’s state chairman, he’s got to take care of home.”
It is also not certain that the county’s solidly Democratic African-American voters will turn out in high numbers without Obama on the ballot.
Trump’s New York state supporters, meanwhile, find little solace in the latest Siena College poll that shows Clinton leading 54 to 30 percent. A new poll of 600 likely voters by McLaughlin and Associates taken for the state Republican Party narrows the statewide lead to 49 to 38 percent in favor of Clinton, though the partisan sponsorship of the survey must be taken into account.
Both parties envision significant get out the vote efforts at home, in Pennsylvania and Ohio this weekend. Brown said he expects hundreds of volunteers in Erie County, while others will work in nearby contested states.
“We’ve been able to also send hundreds of volunteers to the battlegrounds,” he said, noting he has attended rallies and appeared on radio shows in recent weeks as a Clinton surrogate in Pennsylvania and Florida.
But could Erie County actually fall into the Trump column?
“We sure don’t want to let it happen on my watch,” Brown said, “so we all will be working together and very hard to turn out a large Hillary Clinton vote.”