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Will ‘unbelievable’ turnout in Democratic primary impact general election?

WASHINGTON – Democrats flocked to the polls in New York's Democratic primary in unprecedented numbers Thursday, and election watchers think that's a sign they may do the same on Election Day.

And if that happens, even congressional seats that in normal circumstances would fall to a Republican – like New York's 27th, a rural and suburban swath of territory currently served by the indicted Rep. Chris Collins – could end up more competitive than you'd ever think.

That's the conclusion some political pros reached after Democrats turned out in surprising numbers in some less-than-Democratic places.

Just look at what happened in the rural heart of the 27th District. Democratic turnout in Wyoming County leaped 73 percent compared to the primary four years earlier. Democratic turnout jumped 87 percent in Genesee and Orleans counties – and 147 percent in Livingston County.

"A Democrat is still fighting an uphill battle in that district," said James E. Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo whose research predicts a Democratic wave this November.

But Campbell said there is the "potential" that the huge turnout increase among Democrats in the primary could portend similar gains that could boost the Democratic candidate for the 27th District, Nate McMurray.

Collins' indictment on federal insider trading charges on Aug. 8 left the race in an unusual state of flux.

Collins, a Republican from Clarence, suspended his campaign on Aug. 11. But more than a month later, Republican leaders still haven't named a replacement candidate because they still haven't finalized a plan to get Collins' name off the ballot.

Meanwhile, McMurray continues to campaign across the district, seeing signs of Democratic enthusiasm.

Eleanor Gayles-Davis emerges from the Delevan-Grider Community Center after casting her vote in the primary election on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

"We're getting huge crowds in places like Hemlock," a town of about 7,000 in Livingston County, McMurray noted. "We filled a school gym there."

Dramatic trends

McMurray, the Grand Island town supervisor, said that thanks to the enthusiasm he sees among Democrats, "I feel I'm the standard-bearer for something much larger than me."

Data from across the state and the nation bolsters that case.

Turnout among Democrats statewide increased 160 percent from 2014, noted John Couvillon, a Republican consultant from Louisiana who closely tracks primary turnouts and their effect on general elections. Turnout in New York City rose 186 percent, while in the New York City suburbs it skyrocketed 244 percent.

"It was unbelievable," Couvillon said.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who handily defeated progressive actress and activist Cynthia Nixon in his primary, attributed the huge wave of Democratic interest to the controversial Republican in the White House: Donald Trump.

"The fear of Trump, the anger at Trump" drove Democrats to the polls in droves, Cuomo told reporters in New York City on Friday.

New York's turnout increase proved to be far more dramatic than the national trend, which is dramatic enough: Democratic primary turnout nationwide is up about 75 percent.

That portends a very good Election Day for Democrats. The last time Democrats turned out in such numbers in primaries, it was 2006 – when the party rode a blue wave to take control of the House and Senate.

That sort of blue wave this year could even sweep through places that you would never expect it to touch, Couvillon said.

Given the fact that Democrats are so excited and McMurray has the campaign field to himself for the time being, Couvillon said: "Chris Collins' district does not strike me as especially secure right now."

Heavily Republican

Of course, not everything is going McMurray's way.

For one thing, Democratic primary turnout in Erie County – which makes up the largest share of the 27th district – increased only 33 percent. That could be related to the fact that turnout there was unusually high in 2014, too, as county Democrats turned out to vote for former Rep. Kathy Hochul of Buffalo to be lieutenant governor.

For another, the 27th remains a heavily Republican district, where the GOP candidate will enjoy a natural 11-point edge over the Democrat, according to the Cook Political Report.

For that reason, Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy isn't exactly breaking a sweat over the huge boost in Democratic primary turnout.

"I wouldn't read these results as tea leaves," he said.

Instead, he reads the boost in Democratic turnout as a sign that Cuomo spent a huge amount of money on his campaign: $21.4 million as of 11 days before the primary, compared to only $12.5 million in the same period four years earlier.

That money not only paid for waves and waves of television advertising, but also an aggressive Cuomo get-out-the-vote effort in Thursday's primary.

Republicans in the state have a get-out-the-vote strategy of their own. Langworthy said that strategy could counter the wave of Democratic enthusiasm and help the GOP congressional candidate win in the 27th congressional district.

Their strategy serves in the Executive Mansion in Albany and just won nomination for a third term as governor, after two terms in which he riled Republicans with his "SAFE Act" gun control measure and other progressive legislation.

"The governor is the single best get-out-the-vote tool we have," Langworthy said. "The more that Republicans see Andrew Cuomo on television, the more they want to go vote against him."

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