Commentary & Opinion
12:33 pm
Mon September 17, 2012

Liz Benjamin: Cuomo's Endorsements

When it comes to endorsements in last week's primaries, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is five for five.

All three of the Senate Democrats endorsed by the governor - via press release - in the week before the elections and both Assembly Democrats were successful at weathering challenges from fellow party members.

The three senators, Adriano Espaillat, Toby Ann Stavisky and Neil Breslin, won by wide margins.

Ditto for Assemblymen David Gantt and Sean Ryan.

Arguably, Cuomo didn't really have all that much on the line in these races.

He made no personal appearances and recorded no ads or robocalls, giving himself a lot of wiggle room should any of his chosen candidates fail to pass muster with voters.

While Cuomo played it safe during primary season, the stakes are considerably higher in the upcoming general election.

While he might have bought himself some goodwill with fellow Democrats with his September endorsements, what everyone is really curious about is what Cuomo will do in November - particularly now that two Republican senators who voted "yes" on same-sex marriage might lose their respective spots on the GOP ballot line in November.

Interestingly, both Senators Roy McDonald and Steve Saland have the Independence Party line and could continue on in the general election even if they lose to their primary opponents after the paper ballots are counted.

McDonald has so far refused to say one way or the other whether he will run on Row E.

The last time McDonald was asked about his future plans was on primary night when both he and his opponent, Saratoga County Clerk Kathy Marchione, agreed their battle was too close to call and would come down to a count of the absentee ballots.

Saland hasn't made any public appearances or even released a statement since primary day, so his thoughts on a minor party line run are also unknown.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos released a statement several hours after the polls closed last week congratulating four members of his conference who faced "spirited" challenges and appeared to have won. The list included Sens. George Maziarz, Jim Seward, Mark Grisanti (the third GOP same-sex marriage "yes" voter whom many had written off for dead heading into the primary) and Saland.

Fewer votes separate Saland and his opponent, Neil Di Carlo (42), than McDonald and Marchione (122), but a Senate GOP spokesman seemed more optimistic about Saland's chances of squeezing out a victory, saying he had run an aggressive absentee ballot program.

And then, of course, there's the Cuomo factor.

What will Cuomo do if Saland and/or McDonald remain in the general election on the Indy line and seek his support? They will still be registered Republicans even though they won't be running on Row B.

And probably they will still be committed to conferencing with the GOP, which would hurt the Democrats' quest to take back the majority - an effort Cuomo has made quite clear he is not terribly interesting in supporting.

Officially speaking, the Senate GOP will likely be unable to back either Saland or McDonald if one or both of them lose the primary and then decide to tough it out through the general election on the Independence Party line.

Minor party victories are highly unusual - although not altogether unheard of - and the Republicans can't afford to take too many risks with the majority hanging in the balance.

But two ultra conservatives (Di Carlo fits this description a bit more than Marchione, but she's definitely to the right of McDonald) in the Senate GOP conference could prove troublesome for Cuomo - especially if the Republicans manage to retain control of the majority.

The Democrats insist their chances of re-taking control have improved, thanks to the possibility of primary outcomes that pull the Senate Republicans further to the right in a state that leans left.

A Di Carlo victory, for example, puts the 41st Senate District in play, elevating a heretofore second tier candidate, Democrat Terry Gipson, to potential A-list status.

According to the state Board of Elections, Democrats have an almost 10,000-voter enrollment edge over the Republicans in the 41st SD, with 50,837 so-called blanks - voters not affiliated with either major party - a key swing bloc.

In the 43rd Senate District, where McDonald is fighting Marchione and Democrat Robin Andrews is waiting to see who she'll face in November, the situation is even better for Democrats, who have a close to 13,000 voter enrollment edge, with 54,411 blanks in play.

And keep in mind the fact that Marchione has said she'll continue on in the general election on the Conservative line, even if she loses the GOP primary to McDonald, which compound the Republicans' enrollment disadvantage by splitting the vote on the right. (Neither Di Carlo nor Saland received the Conservative Party's nod, though Di Carlo did mount a late write-in campaign for the line).

So, Cuomo could face a difficult choice come November.

If the paper ballots fail to push McDonald and Saland over the line to victory, should Cuomo risk political backlash from his fellow Democrats and rescue these two Republicans from political purgatory?

If he doesn't and they either opt not to run in the general election forge ahead on minor party lines or lose their long-shot bids, does that tarnish or even diminish Cuomo's signature policy achievement of pushing the same-sex marriage bill through the divided Legislature?

On the other hand, if Cuomo does back McDonald and Saland, and, in doing so, ensures the Republicans keep the majority, how angry will the Democrats be?

And what impact will that have on the governor's ability to pursue a fiscally conservative agenda in a difficult year when many local governments are facing possible bankruptcies and Cuomo himself will be gearing up for his re-election bid in 2014?

These questions will remain unanswered for some time - possibly weeks if the two cliffhanger Senate races turn into protracted court battles.

But it's a safe bet Cuomo will be monitoring this week's absentee ballot counts just as closely as the Senate Republicans. If not closer. Politically speaking, he has just as much on the line as they do.

Liz Benjamin is host of Capital Tonight on YNN.  You can follow capital tonight all day long at www.capitaltonight.com.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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