Tuesday’s State Senate election was billed as a test of Eliot Spitzer’s political strength, but the more powerful message reiterated was the power of incumbency (albeit without an incumbent present).
According to unofficial returns, Craig Johnson (D) leads Maureen O’Connell (R), 53-46%. While Long Island has long been a Republican Party stronghold, the 7th Senate district is the only district on Long Island in which Democrats outnumber Republicans. Currently, there are roughly 78,000 Democrats and about 72,000 Republicans in the district, with another 56,700 or so registered with third-parties or unaffiliated with any political party.
The precise effect of partisan and swing voters on the election is unclear, but it seems that many voters voted differently this week than they did just three months ago. Last November, Michael Balboni (who vacated his seat to become chief of Homeland Security for NY) won reelection by more than 15% of the vote. However, his victory bucked underlying voting trends in his district. His district is the most Democratic-leaning in a county that Governor Spitzer carried by a 2-to-1 margin, and Gore carried the 7th District by 20 points in 2000.
Political analysts have noted that Balboni’s seat was a personality seat, meaning his support was based less on partisanship than interpersonal factors. Mr. Balboni is hardly alone in this respect. Several downstate Republicans are currently seated in districts that tend to strongly support Democratic candidates in other elections. Indeed, the number of registered Democrats is double the number of registered Republicans in two Queens Senate districts, but both elected Republicans in 2006 (one candidate even ran unopposed!). Not surprisingly, both of these GOP Senators have tenures spanning at least three decades, and have been able to stave off defeat (and in some cases, competition) by turning their districts into “personality seats”.
In short, incumbency matters a great deal, and the advantage incumbency affords make it difficult to determine the partisan leanings or competitiveness in a district. And so it's interesting to see what happens when a seat appearing to be a partisan lock (due to incumbency) becomes open: a close race between two quality candidates in a district that's suddenly up for grabs.