Robert J. McCarthy is a 30-year veteran of The Buffalo News, the last 20 as political reporter. He’s covered a wide array of elections and candidates, including those for president, Congress, governor, the state legislature, mayor and county executive.
In addition to his reporting, McCarthy writes a Sunday column and contributes to the Politics Now blog. He also covers the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney interviewed McCarthy on Nov. 7, the day after the election. A 3 minute, 54 second video clip including interview highlights is posted above. The full 15 minute, 29 second interview is posted deeper in the transcript, which has been edited lightly for clarity.
Heaney: What strikes you about the elections at the local or state level?
McCarthy: I have to tell you, I have been covering state and local politics for 20 years now and this race between Chris Collins and Kathy Hochul was really one of the most fascinating ones I’ve ever covered.
Heaney: How so?
McCarthy: It was just a real, live dogfight. It really was. And between two very good candidates. I wrote a column after one of their debates saying, “Hey voters, you have a clear, stark choice here between two people who know what they’re doing, who are experienced, and who very well represent their positions. And so voters did have a choice, and it was a very, very close election – one of the closest congressional elections we’ve ever had.
Heaney: There’s a lot made of during the campaign that the parties at the national level and their PACs invested a lot in this. Now that the numbers are in, was this one of the most contested congressional races in the country?
McCarthy: No question – one of the top 10 in the nation as far as money was concerned.
In this race, there was about $5 million spent, mostly for Chris Collins but probably not too far off for Kathy Hochul, too. And there are these Super PACs that have been allowed through the Citizens United case that was decided by the Supreme Court a few years ago. And that allows the Super PACs to spend unlimited amounts of money. Sometimes they don’t even have to declare who their contributors are. You and I both know we can look at the state website and find out who are the contributors to a campaign. But in the Super PAC cases – not every case but in some cases – you don’t even know who’s behind the contributions. So it’s a lot of real outside money that was fueling the races that are very important to the national people in Washington.
I don’t think anybody would ever count (Hochul) out, but if you look around the landscape right now there’s not a lot of places for her to land.
Heaney: Interesting. Had Super PAC money not been involved, might we have seen a different outcome?
McCarthy: Possibly because there is no coordination between the Super PACs and the candidates by law in theory and that’s the law. But in any event you might not have seen some of the charges and some of the particularly rancorous feelings that came out of all of this. And the commercials I think were particularly effective.
In one of the commercials – and this was Kathy Hochul’s own – was the kind of famous Buffalo China commercial that has been debunked by the Buffalo News, by Channel 2, by just several other media outlets throughout the area. And I think that has become a claim by Chris Collins that this one backfired on Kathy Hochul. There is some indication in the Sienna Poll that was taken for the News and Channel 2 that once that ad started airing, there was a change in attitude toward Kathy Hochul.
Heaney: Where does Kathy Hochul go from here? She had by a lot of accounts a very successful year-and-a-half as a congressperson. What’s her future?
McCarthy: That’s a great question. I don’t think anybody would ever discount her as being a political candidate sometimes, somewhere, somehow. She is kind of a natural politician. She has a lot of skills that have brought her to this point. Don’t forget, she won this in a special election in what was also a very Republican district a year and a half ago, though nowhere near as Republican as this one is. So she has those abilities. I don’t think anybody would ever count her out, but if you look around the landscape right now there’s not a lot of places for her to land. But we’ll see what happens.
Heaney: The second race we want to talk about is Mark Grisanti in the state Senate. I don’t think people were surprised that he won given the lineup he faced – kind of a divided democratic field. What’s striking to you?
McCarthy: Again, what strikes me is this time the ability of Mark Grisanti to win in a district that’s more than 2 to 1 Democrat, especially in a presidential year. That’s when everyone comes out. We had a turnout of over 75 percent on Tuesday night.
(Grisanti) is voting as a New York Republican, so to speak – as one of those moderate Republicans that have always been able to thrive and prosper in New York State.
Heaney: How does that compare with historical trends?
McCarthy: That’s kind of what it’s been over the last 30 years I would say. But it’s still very good when you compare it to any other turnout figure. So if you have all these Democrats coming out, theoretically, that should be a very good Democratic year. Mark Grisanti somehow was able to be a crossover Republican.
Heaney: Because of his support of same-sex marriage bill?
McCarthy: That probably had a lot to do with it. He somehow has appealed to Democratic voters maybe in other ways, too. But some people are able to have that crossover appeal and Mark appears to be one of them, probably because he is voting as a New York Republican, so to speak – as one of those moderate Republicans that have always been able to thrive and prosper in New York State.
Heaney: He benefited from a lot of money.
Heaney: And I would argue – I’d be interested in your take – he benefited from a disjointed Democratic field. Mike Amodeo was not a well-known Democrat. He was not a Democrat that enjoyed the largess of funders around the state. He had Chuck Swanick as kind of a wildcard in there. How much of this was the success of Mark Grisanti versus the malfunction of the Democrats?
McCarthy: A little bit of both, and I think my Sunday column is going to touch on that also – just about how there were efforts by Steve Pigeon and some other operatives within the party to set Chuck Swanick up as the candidate of the party, where you have the endorsement and have the Conservative line also, have the backing of Senate Democrats in Albany and the money that would come with that. It didn’t work because Democrats in Erie County are not able to get along with each other. I’m not saying that that was the right course or anything else. All I’m saying is that Democrats in Erie County don’t agree on many things at all.
Heaney: The county comptroller’s race is the third one, which I think people are somewhat surprised. Stefan Mychajliw, a Republican, winning countywide in a county that’s got a huge Democratic enrollment edge in a presidential year. What do you make of his victory?
McCarthy: Same dynamic. A lot of name recognition and not a lot of familiarity with David Schenk, who was appointed to that position when Mark Poloncarz became county executive. And not a lot of money came his way. Stefan was able to get enough at least to put his familiar face on television and I have to think that had a lot to do with it. I think it had a lot to do with the reason the Republican Party picked him in the first place. They threw the dice on this one and came up with a pretty good win.
Heaney: Let’s move on. It wasn’t that long ago “state legislature,” if you did word association, if you said “state legislature,” the response would be “dysfunction.” And yet, once again this year, there’s only three to six incumbents defeated. Locally, I was looking on election night, there were 13 state legislative races in our region. Four of them – total no competition. I mean there was not – it was vote for A or nobody. And most of the rest were pretty much decided in the primaries. And there were only two or three that were truly competitive. What does that say about the state of either the Legislature or the state of our political parties, where most races are simply not competitive? How much of it is gerrymandering?
McCarthy: It has everything to do with it. I remember taking over the political beat 20 years ago and one of the first real projects I did was to delve into that whole thing and go back probably 15 years before that. And I think I came up with something like a 98 percent reelection rate throughout the state.
Heaney: It’s still about that.
McCarthy: It has not changed very much at all and the gerrymandering has so much to do with it. Mark Grisanti benefited by that tremendously because they created a new district for him that was still democratic, but much more friendly.
Heaney: Yeah, it was 2 to 1 rather than 5 to 1.
McCarthy: That’s right, and very important to maintaining that Senate Republican majority as it was at the time. That could be changing also the way that the election has turned out.
I think it’s five of the six last presidential elections where there has been no Republican majority in the popular vote, and that should tell them something.
Heaney: The way it’s falling, it looks like 32-31 in favor of the Dems, but that’s kind of a shaky.
McCarthy: A lot of interplay between the two parties.
Heaney: What should we be looking at the next weeks or month or two ahead?
McCarthy: Look at that independent caucus, the independent Democrats, the four of those. None of them really from our area, but they are off on their own. They’re Democrats but they can work with Republicans. And it has been I think a backlash against some of the Democratic majority leadership that was there the last time the Dems controlled it. Half of those guys are in jail now. So it is a reaction to that. They are free agents, and it’s New York State politics at its best because who knows what’s going to happen with these folks now.
Heaney: Let’s step back and look at the national picture for a moment. Obama won reelection I think in some ways more handily than people thought. He owes his election to the female vote, the young vote, and the minority vote. What should this election be telling the Republican Party at the national level? I mean, they still control the House so it’s not like they’re out of the game, but when it comes to presidential elections, what kind of head scratching should the Republicans be doing about now?
McCarthy: I think it’s five of the six last presidential elections where there has been no Republican majority in the popular vote, and that should tell them something.
Heaney: That should tell them what?
McCarthy: I think it means that there has to be some new direction for the party. I did a column out of Tampa at the Republican National Convention this year talking with Al D’Amato. He made some very interesting points. Here’s a guy who is a Republican in a Democratic state, won statewide election three times. And what he was saying is the party needs to reach out to Hispanic voters in the same way that the Republican Party reached out to his immigrant Italian grandparents a century ago.
And it is, I think, most interesting now that the party looks at that possibility and nationally in previous years, Republicans would attract Hispanics to some degree anyway. But that seems to be lessening. Probably many Hispanics don’t agree with the immigration policies of the national Republican Party. And that is not specific to New York, which has always been moderate – the Rockefeller Republican concept. But the immigration policies have probably made it more difficult for Hispanics to sign up with the GOP and even if Al D’Amato talks about that, it is a difficult assignment for the party these days.
Heaney: What does this election say about the future of the Tea Party within the Republican Party?
McCarthy: Well, they’re always going to be there. I don’t think they’re as effective as they were two years ago. Those candidates just weren’t as successful, but they are a potent force within the Republican Party. They’re not going anywhere.
Heaney: Might their influence have crested?
McCarthy: Yet to be seen. To be determined.
Heaney: Let’s come back and ask you one final question about how the local and state results reflect on the party leadership here. If Chris Collins had lost, there might have been some heads roll in the Republican Party. Len Lenihan didn’t leave all that long ago, but his successor – at least the Hochul loss happened on his watch. What does this mean for the respective local party chairmen?
McCarthy: Well I think there is always going to be turmoil within the Democratic Party that allows guys like me to justify their existence by writing about that every time we turn around. But it’s part of life here. It has been and it’s going to continue especially with the Democratic leadership in Albany not really having anything to do with the new chairman, Jeremy Zellner. That’s going to continue to be a problem.
Heaney: His term is for two years?
McCarthy: Yes. But even though he is working hard at trying to make some inroads around the party, it’s a difficult assignment for him. In the meantime, the Republicans, Nick Langworthy as I think you pointed out and his crew were solidly behind the Collins effort and by a very slim margin they’re safe for another day.
Heaney: Electing a comptroller probably helped, too.