Last month, Assemblyman Pat Burke thought his reelection campaign was in trouble.
The campaign’s polling showed his Republican opponent, Sandy Magnano of West Seneca, running surprisingly strong for a first-time candidate who embraced extreme right-wing positions, ranging from 2020 election denial to Q Anon-style conspiracy theories.
A tracking poll showed fewer than 50 percent of those who responded were committed to voting for Burke, following a barrage of negative campaign ads paid for, in large part, by the state Republican party. The GOP targeted Burke — a left-leaning Democrat originally from South Buffalo, now an Orchard Park resident — as vulnerable in a year Republicans expected an uprising of anti-Democrat sentiment at the polls.
“My goose might be cooked,” he texted Investigative Post at lunchtime on Election Day.
It wasn’t. At the end of the night, Burke led by 6 percentage points — just one point shy of his margin of victory in 2018, the last gubernatorial election year in the state. There are still absentee votes left to count, but that margin is likely to stand.
Similarly, State Sen. Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, feared a “red wave” might cost him in his race against Republican Ed Rath of Amherst. Reapportionment had thrown the two incumbent state senators into the same district, the 61st, which — like Burke’s 142nd Assembly District — has substantially more registered Democrats than Republicans, but also a lot of independent voters.
On Tuesday night, Ryan described the weeks running up to the election as “chaotic,” as polls reported Republican challenger Lee Zeldin gaining ground on incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul, and Republican candidates poised to edge out Democrats in House races in blue districts downstate.
“A lot of dark money came in from outside, a lot of negative mailers,” Ryan told WGRZ’s Ron Plants at the Buffalo Irish Center, where Democrats gathered to watch the results come in.
By Wednesday morning, Ryan was leading Rath by 13 percentage points.
Rath didn’t lose because he’s unpopular or unknown: He has a famous last name in local politics and served 13 years as an Erie County legislator before winning a seat in the state Senate in 2020. He has presented himself as a moderate Republican, even as his party swings farther to the right.
He lost because the newly drawn district had 93,893 registered Democrats compared to 50,606 registered Republicans, as of Nov. 1. And because there was no “red wave” — at least not in Western New York.
Election results for governor
Further proof is in the race for governor. Preliminary results show Hochul beating Zeldin in Erie County with 53 percent of the tally, about 176,000 votes to 157,000. That tracks with local results in 2018.
That year, then Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with Hochul as his running mate, beat Republican Marc Molinaro in Erie County with 54 percent of the vote, about 175,000 to 150,000.
Statewide, the Cuomo/Hochul ticket won 62 percent of the vote in 2018. Hochul’s victory yesterday was far narrower. Preliminary results show Hochul defeating Zeldin by a little over 5 percentage points.
Back in July, independent polls by Emerson and Siena had Hochul up by 16 and 14 points. However, subsequent polls showed Zeldin gaining. In August, the Trafalgar Group reported the race was within the margin of error. Last week, Trafalgar reported a dead heat — with a slight edge for Zeldin.
But there’s an asterisk there: Trafalgar is a Republican-leaning firm, and its findings usually predict Republicans doing better than other, traditional, independent polling outfits do.
Trafalgar claims its methodology accounts for a Democratic bias in the results those traditional pollsters report. Critics say Trafalgar and a proliferation of other relatively small, partisan pollsters, whether pro-Republican or pro-Democrat, sow doubt and distrust in polling — and election results.
Still, Trafalgar has sometimes been right where others have been wrong, most notably predicting Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. They weren’t far off in the Hochul/Zeldin race. And downstate, Republicans picked up three House seats.
That qualifies as a red ripple in deep-blue New York State, but it didn’t reach Erie County.
The best news for local Republicans is that incumbent Mickey Kearns — a registered Democrat who keeps getting elected on the Republican and Conservative party lines — easily fended off a challenge from Melissa Hartman, the Town of Eden supervisor who was a Republican until earlier this year.
Possible Jacobs candidacy
Hartman’s loss is a setback on an otherwise good night for Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner, who engineered Hartman’s candidacy. And Kearns’s victory makes him a possible Republican candidate for Erie County executive next year.
Another Republican contender for that seat is Chris Jacobs, scion of billionaires, a former state senator and Erie County Clerk. Jacobs served one term in Congress and declined to run for reelection after publicly taking a pro-gun-control position in the wake of mass shootings last May in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas.
Jacobs made a number of donations this year to local Republican candidates — including the extremist Magnano and the moderate Rath — which seems an indication he’d like to keep his name in the mix as his party plots strategies to retake the position Democrat Mark Poloncarz has held for three terms.
Poloncarz’s circle has been holding campaign meetings, according to sources who have attended them. But there has been steady speculation Poloncarz might not seek a fourth term.
If he seeks re-election, no Democrat is likely to challenge him. If he doesn’t, his faction seems inclined to support Amherst Town Supervisor Brian Kulpa to succeed him. Amherst has become a Democratic stronghold over the past decade, as illustrated by Ryan’s victory over Rath, who once could have counted on more Republican votes there.
An open seat for county executive might attract other Democrats, too — perhaps even Burke, who served two terms in the Erie County Legislature before jumping to the Assembly in 2018.
Speaking of the Legislature, that body’s minority conference will soon have to pick a successor to its leader, Joe Lorigo, who won a New York State Supreme Court judgeship Tuesday. Lorigo is a member of the Conservative Party headed by his father, Ralph. He beat Democrat Shannon Heneghan, a Buffalo City Court judge. There were five openings on the court; four candidates were cross-endorsed by Democrats and Republicans, meaning voters only had a choice for one of the vacancies.
Lorigo lost Erie County to Heneghan but was carried to victory by the other seven counties comprising the 8th Judicial District.
Lorigo’s legislative district includes West Seneca where Magnano, Burke’s opponent, lives. Don’t be surprised to see her running for office next year, when all the Legislature’s seats are on the ballot.