OpEd: Long Island’s Elections Are The True Bellwether

2020-03-10T194948Z_1539405676_RC27HF9OPTX8_RTRMADP_3_USA-ELECTION (1)
Workers prepare ballots from a drop box for the mail sorting machine during the presidential primary at King County Elections ballot processing center in Renton, Washington, U.S. March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

The Washington, D.C. pundit class is up in arms about Tuesday’s elections in Virginia, where former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is fighting for his old job against newcomer Glen Younkin (R).

The commonwealth has not elected a Democratic governor since 2009, and McAuliffe – a close ally of President Joe Biden – is not doing as well in the polls as he had hoped. He is running even with Youngkin, who has made education and vaccines central focuses of his campaign, staying clear of former president Donald Trump since he won the nomination. 

The McAuliffe-Youngkin race is touted as a bellwether of things to come for Biden and congressional democrats in advance of the 2022 midterm elections. With a very tight margin in the House of Representatives and a 50-50 Senate, almost any losses next year will cost Democrats their majority, and Biden’s agenda will come to a sudden, screeching halt. 

The argument is, as goes Virginia, so goes the rest of the country. But I would argue that Nassau County is even more predictive than Virginia. 

Nassau is home to almost 1.4 million people, larger than each of the 10 least populated states in the country. The County is a microcosm of not only New York but of the entire country. It is ethnically diverse, but it’s also made up of families and individuals across all age groups and income brackets.

Bordering New York City, Nassau has some of the most expensive real estate and richest people in the United States. But it also was hit by the early effects of COVID, as well as some of the worst unemployment and racial tensions anywhere in the country in the past year. Its history, somewhat like the storied history of Virginia (home to more presidents than any other state), runs parallel to that of the last century in America, leading the way for the great suburban migration in the 1940s and ’50s with the creation of Levittown (also, the first meeting of the United Nations in 1946 was held in Lake Success).  

County Executive Laura Curran was elected in 2017, replacing the indicted incumbent, Ed Mangano (now a convicted felon). Curran ran against his history of corruption and on turning the tide in county government. In defeating former State Senator and former Mineola Mayor Jack Martins by a very slim 51-48 margin, Curran a former Legislator from Baldwin — became the first woman to hold the job. 

This year, Curran is facing a host of challenges as she fights off Bruce Blakeman, a former County Legislature presiding officer and current Hempstead councilmember:  

COVID, high taxes, failing infrastructure, a subpar transit system, crime, and a lack of affordable housing are on the list for Curran. Recently, the County Legislature, faced with an influx of money from Washington, approved $375 payouts to all Nassau residents meeting an income threshold. 

Curran should feel pretty good about her reelection chances, but anything is possible in a post-Trump, post-COVID world. Nassau residents are overworked, overtaxed, overtrafficked and overtired. 

The margin for error is low, and, just like in every other election throughout the rest of the country – the winning issue is not economic nor cultural, but turnout, turnout, and turnout. Four years ago, Curran defeated Martins by only about eight thousand votes (equivalent to three percent of the vote). With COVID and the recent turnover in the governor’s mansion top of mind, there is no way to tell who is going to show up to the polls (though early voting is able to give us a decent predictor). 

Next year, New Yorkers will elect all statewide officials and will likely see the first truly competitive and crowded primary for governor in twenty years, as Gov. Kathy Hochul attempts to run for a full term in her own right. Senator Chuck Schumer, the Majority Leader, will be up for his fifth term. With so many moving pieces in the electoral map, not to mention a congressional redistricting, New Yorkers could see more than a few open seats two in Nassau County alone (Rep. Tom Suozzi is running for governor and Rep. Kathleen Rice may run for attorney general if Tish James challenges Hochul). 

There is so much at stake in next year’s midterm elections, including immediate control of Congress and leading right into the 2024 presidential elections. The governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey this year are mildly predictive, but the elections right here on Long Island may have more of an impact than can be imagined as we head into what will certainly be an unsteady political climate for the remainder of the decade and beyond.

Ross M. Wallenstein is the founder and CEO of Wall to Wall Communications, LLC, a public affairs consulting firm. He served on the staff of former Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-Queens/Nassau) and worked in the administration of former New York Governors Eliot Spitzer and David A. Paterson.

Ross M. Wallenstein is founder and CEO of Wall to Wall Communications

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