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Why suburban swing towns could be key to Erie County executive race

As James Niwinski and Gordon Wyntjes lined up their shots at the Cheektowaga Senior Center pool table a few days ago, talk turned to Tuesday’s big election for county executive.

Both are Democrats, and both plan to vote. Wyntjes, a retired store manager and insurance executive, seems to represent the solid suburban voter that incumbent Democrat Mark C. Poloncarz needs to gain a third term on Tuesday.

“He doesn’t come across like a Kennedy or even Trump. He’s kind of blah,” Wyntjes said of Poloncarz, leaning on his cue stick. “But he’s done a decent job, and I don’t see any major problems.”

Niwinski, however, emerges as another kind of Democrat that challenger Lynne M. Dixon must convince to pull off the upset. Even as a longtime Democratic officeholder – trustee and mayor of Sloan – Niwinski plans to mark his Tuesday ballot for the Independence Party candidate running on the Republican line.

“When I was mayor I asked for help and never got it,” Niwinski said. “What’s he really done for the small villages? Nothing.”

Venues like the Cheektowaga Senior Center may very well emerge as prime battlegrounds in the 2019 contest for county executive. Along with other sizable towns like Hamburg, West Seneca and Lancaster, Republicans hope to lure Democratic majorities into their column – just as they did for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

“I would call them the bellwether towns,” said former Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis. “No question.”

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Indeed, Democratic bastions like Cheektowaga, Hamburg, West Seneca and Lancaster are known to occasionally stray into the Republican column. All of them stuck to their Democratic roots and overwhelmingly supported Poloncarz over Republican Raymond W. Walter for county executive in 2015.

But just one year later, Democratic voters in the four key towns deserted Hillary Clinton for Trump. Though the dynamics of 2016 vary considerably from this year’s election, Dixon’s forces are hoping for a repeat this year. They loom as potential Republican votes that could prove decisive in light of the low turnout expected in the City of Buffalo.

Gordon Wyntjes of Cheektowaga shoots pool at the Cheektowaga Senior Center on Thursday. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

With only a couple of general election choices facing city voters, most political observers predict the lack of local contests that formerly energized Buffalo’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate will point few voters toward the polls. Dixon’s ray of hope, they say, rests upon tapping into those suburban swing towns that can – and often do – vote Republican.

“Maybe these folks’ parents or grandparents were Democrats, but I just don’t think people vote along party lines anymore,” said Karl J. Simmeth Jr., the Erie County Republican chairman. “They look at their paychecks or 401(k)s. They’re not just voting Democrat across the board.”

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Simmeth noted that Dixon established her campaign headquarters in West Seneca, a top target of her outreach efforts. In addition, towns like Hamburg feature hot “down ballot” races for town and county legislative posts, expected to counter the lack of interest in Democratic Buffalo.

“We have tried to couple our county executive message with those,” he said.

In addition, Republicans hope that Dixon can repeat her decadelong record of success in Hamburg, the base of the County Legislature seat that she has easily claimed since 2009.

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Still, Democrats hope to retain their Buffalo voters. Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner says the party will employ its normal get-out-the-vote efforts and rely on Mayor Byron W. Brown’s troops, as well. The mayor, he said, was slated to accompany Poloncarz to several churches in predominantly black neighborhoods on Sunday to energize the party’s most loyal constituency.

Will Zellner’s normal Democrats vote Republican again as they did for Trump?

“They wanted change and someone to disrupt things," Zellner said of Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016. "But he’s failed miserably. I don’t see those towns going that way this time.”

Voters like Bonnie Roll in West Seneca will need to show up in big numbers to validate Zellner’s predictions. While shopping at Southgate Plaza last week, the retired mental health counselor who now works at a big-box home improvement store says she will vote for Poloncarz. She also makes it clear she is not among the West Seneca Democrats who defected to Trump three years ago.

“I’m not voting for Trump,” she said, “that’s for sure.”

Further, Roll always votes a straight Democratic ticket, and thinks the county executive has done a “good job.”

“I just like the way things are running smoothly in West Seneca,” she said.

A few miles away at Hamburg Village Square Plaza, Karin Best proudly pointed to her support for Trump. She will vote for Dixon because she thinks it’s time for someone else to lead the county.

“Two terms is enough,” she said.

Karin Best of Hamburg shops in Hamburg Village Square on Thursday. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

A Conservative who is retired after 25 years as a school nurse, Best appreciates the image Dixon has crafted as a single mother who can relate to voters.

“I have read where she doesn’t stand a chance, but I think she comes across as very genuine,” she said. “Unfortunately for him, she is much more personable and warmer to the camera.”

Poloncarz remains the favorite in the race, as he attempts to capitalize on the Democrat’s 135,000 registration advantage and all the powers of incumbency. But his television advertising has relied heavily on the negative, which some say indicates a close contest.

Political observers say that if Dixon is to pull out this race, she must win over Democrats like Wyntjes at the Cheektowaga Senior Center. He voted for Trump in Cheektowaga, where he has lived for the last 55 years.

“I’m a registered Democrat,” he said, “but I’ve been voting Republican. I’m just turned off by the Democratic Party."

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