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Erie County stays competitive in governor race, despite Democratic edge

Larry Blakely was researching campaign issues at the Anna Reinstein Memorial Library in Cheektowaga a few days ago when he was asked about next week’s election for governor.

Like others who patronize the suburban library, he is considered a swing voter who may help determine whether Erie County supports Democratic incumbent Andrew M. Cuomo or Republican challenger Marc Molinaro. After hearing Molinaro at a Cheektowaga town hall meeting over the summer, Blakely says he will mark his ballot for the Republican on Tuesday.

“Some people focus on the Democrat or Republican thing, but Marc doesn’t,” he said. “I think he will work for the people and he speaks from the heart.”

But across town at the Cheektowaga Senior Center, a “staunch Democrat” who would only give her name as “Mary” made her case for Cuomo. She noted the governor’s Buffalo Billion program financing a solar panel factory in South Buffalo and his support for the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

“Look what Cuomo has done for health care; he expanded Medicaid,” she said. “He gave all that money to the waterfront. And if it weren’t for Cuomo, we would not have that Medical Campus.”

The diverging opinions in a key suburban town underscore the question marks surrounding Erie County in Tuesday’s election. Though Erie remains home to upstate New York’s largest concentration of Democrats, those close to the Cuomo-Molinaro contest say the voters at the library and senior center show that despite the claims of party officials, neither side can be sure about victory here on Tuesday.

“I really believe there is a very good chance Marc Molinaro will carry this county,” Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said of the Dutchess County executive. “From my perspective, it comes down to towns like Cheektowaga, Lancaster and Hamburg.”

His Democratic counterpart, Jeremy J. Zellner, dismisses such talk. He views Erie County as a Democratic stronghold anchored by the City of Buffalo that will show its true blue colors in the voting booth.

“Our TV in the last few days we will say ‘Here is what we’ve done for Western New York,’” he said. “That will be hard for people to overlook.”

Nevertheless, Erie County has traditionally presented a challenge for Democrats, despite their registration advantage of about 130,000 voters. Cuomo lost in 2010 to Buffalo’s Carl P. Paladino, as he did in eight other western counties. In 2014, with Kathy Hochul of Buffalo as his running mate, Cuomo carried Erie County — but not overwhelmingly — by approximately 22,000 votes out of 246,000 cast.

New poll finds Molinaro gaining on Cuomo

And former Republican office holders like Gov. George E. Pataki, Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato and Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco also demonstrated their ability to carry Democratic Erie County. More recently, so have countywide Republicans like Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw Jr. and Sheriff Timothy B. Howard (as well as County Clerk Michael P. Kearns, a Democrat running on the GOP line).

Former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, a one-time Erie County Republican chairman, sees the past as possible prelude for 2018. He points to the GOP’s traditional ability to compete in Democratic Erie County, as well as the area’s relatively conservative electorate.

“The governor, in a quest to capture the left side of his party, may have pushed a button with conservatives, independents and Republicans,” Reynolds said, suggesting some may vote for Stephanie Miner, the former Syracuse mayor running on the Serve America Movement line.

“But some will opt for Molinaro as well,” he added. “I think there is optimism in many upstate counties that he will do well, even though he is having difficulty getting out his message.”

Indeed, an Oct. 18 Quinnipiac University poll shows Molinaro leading Cuomo 52 to 41 percent among upstate’s likely voters. But the governor has constructed a huge lead in New York City, where he beats Molinaro 77 to 13 percent, and 58 to 35 percent statewide.

In 2014, Cuomo recorded similar totals, with Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino winning most upstate counties. But the governor again scored an overwhelming victory in New York City.

Data analysts say this year may prove no different. Barry Zeplowitz, a veteran Buffalo pollster who maintains mostly Republican clients around the country, believes the situation in solidly Democratic Erie County “has got to be pretty close.”

“I would think Cheektowaga will go with the Republican, as it has in its history,” he said. “The city will not turn out very well. So if Molinaro carries the rural areas and places like Cheektowaga, I think there’s a good chance he could carry the county. It’s likely to be close.”

Who's on the ballot in Erie County?

Though the election for governor usually proves second only to a presidential contest in spurring Erie County turnout, observers note few local contests in Democratic Buffalo to spur a big vote. Assembly incumbents like Democrats Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes and Sean M. Ryan face only token opposition, and their elections are not expected to draw massive numbers.

In Democratic South Buffalo, meanwhile, both Assembly candidates — incumbent Eric T. Bohen (a Democrat running on the Republican line) and Democrat Patrick B. Burke — are emphasizing their opposition to Cuomo in a district that also encompasses Lackawanna, West Seneca and Orchard Park.

“For all he’s done, he has to be saying ‘What more to I have to do there?’ ” Zeplowitz said of Cuomo.

The Cuomo re-election campaign, meanwhile, has mostly avoided Western New York. Other than a pre-primary rally in September, Cuomo has made no local campaign appearances in recent weeks and only one governmental visit since April. His effort has consisted mainly of television commercials and statements from his campaign painting Molinaro as “Trump mini-me.”

Mayor Byron W. Brown, who is also state Democratic chairman, acknowledges that places like Cheektowaga have in the past proven “good barometers” of statewide politics. But he likes the Cuomo campaign thrust highlighting the “destructive policies” of President Trump for New Yorkers.

“From Niagara Falls to Nassau County people are concerned about these policies that are harmful to New Yorkers,” he said in a recent interview. “The governor is perfectly positioned to challenge those policies and stand up for the needs of New York State. I think he’s been a leader.”

As state chairman, Brown will face pressure on Tuesday to bring his home county into the Cuomo column. He has met similar challenges in the past — such as turning out his home base for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s victory in the 2016 presidential primary.

He thinks Western New York is receptive to the Cuomo message.

“There is still a healthy level of pessimism in upstate New York and Western New York about state government prior to this governor when this county was overlooked, forgotten and not invited in,” he said. “I think the governor has repaired that and focused incredible attention on this community and we see great progress in Buffalo and Western New York.

“I certainly will do everything in my power to help turn out the vote,” he added, “and reinforce for people that the governor has done a good job for this community — and given another four-year term, he will do more.”

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