Trump, GOP stem the 'blue wave' in New York's northern suburbs

Issues like bail reform and COVID-19 restrictions fueled a Republican pushback in the blue Lower Hudson Valley.

Mark Lungariello Robert Brum
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Democrats hoped the Trump Effect would push another blue wave through New York City’s northern suburbs – but Republicans mostly stemmed the tide.

President Donald Trump was ahead in Putnam and Rockland counties in the presidential race against Joe Biden and local GOP candidates led in several key local elections.

It was a trend seen across the state, despite former President-elect Joe Biden’s decisive win statewide – Republicans showed some life at the polls.

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign event at his Trump National Country Club in Briarcliff June 7, 2016.

This year showed that there’s still an ideological divide between New York City and its suburbs, said longtime Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. Voters reacted against progressive and left-leaning policies from Albany – and that boosted candidates in the northern suburbs and on Long Island, he said.

“The great fear is that suburbanites will be taxed out of existence by hungry and bankrupt New York City while the streets in suburbia will be filled with crime and violence,” Sheinkopf said.

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State bail reform and images of civil unrest in the city and other cities across the country fueled public safety anxiety, he said.

Where Trump has repelled many voters in the Lower Hudson Valley, others view New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as symbols of overtaxation and anti-law enforcement chaos, he said.

“AOC and Bill de Blasio are the poster people for suburban Republican voting,” Sheinkopf said. “They are the incentive."

Democrats went into the election hoping to build a veto-proof supermajority in the state Senate, but instead they were likely to lose ground. They hold 40 of 62 seats today.

Republicans in the Lower Hudson Valley were in a position to flip two Democratic-held Senate seats and one Assembly seat in the Lower Hudson Valley.

There are still more than 1.4 million absentee ballots to be counted across the state, but whether the leads hold or not Republicans will have at minimum put a scare into coasting Democrats in places like Westchester.

Biden led Trump with 62% of the vote counted so far in Westchester, where Democrats have a 2-1 registration advantage. But Republicans led in the race that was their focus in that area.

Reginald A. LaFayette, the Democratic Commissioner for the Westchester County Board of Elections, looks over some of the absentee ballots that have already been logged in but not counted, at their office in White Plains, Nov. 5, 2020.

Former County Executive Rob Astorino was ahead in his bid against Democratic incumbent Pete Harckham in the Senate’s 40th District which includes part of Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess,

Absentees may still sway the final result there. Whatever happens in his race, Astorino said Democrats would recalibrate on the state level to work in a bipartisan fashion for more moderate policy.

“I think the Albany Democrats learned a lesson here that their radical, extremist agenda coming out of New York City is not going to play in the suburbs and the rest of the state,” Astorino said.

In the town of Eastchester, the last Westchester County town with an Republican-government, Republican Sheila Marcotte appeared to have beaten Democratic challenger Tara Conte even as Democrats took the registration majority in the town earlier this year.

Westchester District Attorney candidate Bruce Bendish didn’t report spending one dollar in the campaign, publicly said he had dropped out of the race but still received 113,000 votes against District Attorney-elect Mimi Rocah.

“Better days are ahead and I think we’re going to do quite well next year,” said Doug Colety, chairman of the Westchester County Republican Party.

There are still 100,000 absentees to be counted in Westchester, and they’re expected to largely favor Democrats. Colety said however those break, the results already show many underestimated that Trump still has an active base in the region and state.

Rob Astorino casts his ballot as his daughter Ashlin looks on at the Hawthorne Elementary School in Hawthorne Nov. 3, 2020.

Trump as a campaign issue

Anti-Trump sentiment was credited as sparking a progressive movement in Westchester that led to big losses since the presidential inauguration in 2017. It’s become common strategy in local races to link Republican candidates directly to the president and his policies, even running ads with Trump’s image on them.

In Rockland County, attempts to derail Republican candidates by linking them to Trump failed, said county Republican Party Chairman Lawrence Garvey.

This was especially the case with Republican Assembly candidate Mike Lawler, who opponents targeted for his role as a Trump delegate in 2016. Lawler held a more than 7,500-vote lead over Ellen Jaffee in his effort to unseat the Democratic Assemblywoman, with thousands of absentee ballots still left to count.

Polling the party did earlier this year showed Trump ahead of any of the Democratic challengers, with disdain for New York’s recently enacted cashless bail reforms and support for law-and-order issues resonating with voters more strongly than COVID-19 and even their dislike for the president himself, Garvey said.

“People are willing to move across parties if the message is correct,” he said. “Party affiliation doesn’t matter in Rockland County the way it does in other counties across the state.”

Trump increased his vote total in Rockland County, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-1 ratio, and was well ahead of Biden based on ballots cast before or on Election Day.

Trump received 63,830 votes, or 55%, to Joe Biden’s 50,926, or nearly 44%, according to unofficial totals.

That outcome is likely to change: Of the more than 34,000 absentee ballots that haven’t been counted, more than 19,000 are from registered Democrats and only about 5,690 from Republicans.

In 2016, Trump garnered 60,906 votes (45%) to Hillary Clinton’s 69,334 votes (51%) in Rockland.

Trump took 59% in Putnam County, the last bastion of the GOP in the northern suburbs, and was up 25,899-17,106, according to unofficial results with absentees still to be counted.

GOP nets Orthodox support

Even the Congressional race saw the Republican candidate – political neophyte Maureen McArdle Schulman – piling up more than 43% of the votes in Rockland. The retired FDNY firefighter fell short of Democrat Mondaire Jones's total, but more than respectable for a comparably low-key campaign.

If a pair of state Legislature seats long held by Rockland Democrats get flipped into the GOP column, the change may be attributable to strong support from the county's Orthodox and Hasidic communities.

Those residents “came out in droves” on Election Day to support Trump and local Republicans in repudiation of the COVID-19 restrictions Gov. Andrew Cuomo placed on their neighborhoods last month, said community activist Rivkie Feiner of Monsey.

Feiner pointed specifically to Lawler's lead over Jaffee, and the 38th Senate District, where Republican Bill Weber was ahead of Democrat Elijah Reichlin-Melnick in the race to replace Democrat David Carlucci.

Both races still have thousands of outstanding absentee ballots waiting to be counted.

Michael Lawler and Ellen Jafee

“I think people were waiting to have their voices heard,” she said. “I think the only way was through the ballot box.”

On Twitter, Feiner has been using hashtag #BlueCountyBledRed to express the community’s dissatisfaction with the lockdown.

Feiner, whose home was in the Cuomo-imposed COVID-19 “red zone” and her business in the “yellow zone,” said the community felt targeted by the restrictions.

“It created a fear of people who looked or dressed like Orthodox. I know that’s not what the governor’s intent was, but that was the effect of what happened.”

“People are losing their jobs, business are closing, the state has not given any additional funding. There’s no easing up on the restrictions on houses of worship,” she added.

Feiner noted Cuomo’s past support for the Jewish community – especially following last December’s knife attack at a Monsey rabbi’s home – but said the governor’s latest restrictions “felt oppressive, it felt like a line was crossed.”

Trump already enjoyed popularity among the Orthodox, not only for his policies related to Israel, she said, but also his support for religious freedom and school choice. “He seems to have an understanding of our community,” she said of the president.

Mark Lungariello covers government and politics. Follow him on Facebook @lungariello and Twitter @marklungariello.

Robert Brum is a Rockland County-based reporter and editor. Follow him on Twitter: @Bee_bob.