For the most part, New York State basked in the so-called “blue wave” of the 2018 election, as Democrats flipped eight state senate seats and took control of the chamber for the first time in a decade, three GOP congressional incumbents were toppled and Governor Andrew Cuomo coasted to victory in his bid for a third term.
However, Democrats saw their hopes fizzle in New York’s 41st State Senate District, which spans most of Dutchess and Putnam counties. In a battle for the Senate seat that locals closely watched, Democratic businesswoman and Vassar alum Karen Smythe ’82 came 0.6-points away from unseating GOP incumbent Sue Serino. Serino lost critical footing in a district that, with little exception, has long been held by Republicans. Nonetheless, in an election cycle that seemed nothing short of miraculous for upstate Democrats, Smythe’s bid came up short.
This year, Smythe is back—and by the looks of it, has the makings for yet another competitive bid to flip the seat that carries Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s legacy.
As she battles Smythe for a second time, Serino’s politics look familiar: a public platform sticking close to an inoffensive, bipartisan brand of conservatism with a voting record that ultimately allies with the GOP establishment.
Serino recently spoke out against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s bail reform measures for their inconsideration of the safety of domestic violence victims, but she also voted against Senate Bill S8121, which sought to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic violence offenders, in 2018. In this past term, Serino has periodically crossed party lines. She voted to prohibit 3D-printed firearms and require that menstrual product packaging lists ingredients, both Democrat-led initiatives. But more often than not, Serino has stuck with her party, voting to oppose bills that capped penalties for marijuana possession and authorized expungement of certain marijuana-related convictions, expanded eviction protections, and extended the voter registration cutoff (Vote Smart, “Sue Serino’s Voting Records”).
On the other hand, Smythe’s platform aligns with Democratic Party stances on hot-button issues. It says that healthcare should not be tied to employment, that women must have full access to reproductive health care and that schools must implement anti-racist curricula at every level. Smythe also insists that her business background gives her the know-how needed to revamp the Hudson Valley’s economy.
Smythe’s objections to Serino’s leadership are by no means strictly partisan—the senator’s tug-of-war between bipartisanism and strict party politics presents voters with a puzzling picture. But the question remains: Is this year any more advantageous for Smythe than 2018? The answer is somewhat mystifying.
Perhaps most importantly, 2020 is an opportunity for Smythe to build off of the momentum that she gathered as a first-time candidate in 2018, and she only has a 0.6-point deficit to fill. Additionally, common logic would hold that with a presidential election skewing towards the Democratic nominee, Smythe would stand to benefit considerably from a presidential “coattail” effect, or Joe Biden’s positive effect on Democratic down-ballot races.
Nonetheless, such a prediction neglects one big difference from two years ago: The New York State government is now controlled by a Democratic trifecta. A simple campaign strategy denouncing Trump’s party probably will not cut it. With Democrats in total control of the state, it is likely that some voters, in an effort to balance their tickets, will skew towards the opposite party of whom they believe to be the winner of the presidential race. In fact, the higher the pre-election odds are for a Democrat winning the presidency, the more the vote share for Democratic down-ballot candidates declines—potentially by up to 3.5 points. Moreover, Biden is on course to perform as well in New York as Hillary Clinton in 2016, the same year that Serino won a nearly 11-point victory over former Democratic Senator Terry Gipson, whom she had unseated by only four points just two years prior (Ballotpedia, “Susan J. Serino”).
At the end of the day, the result will be an answer to the question of whether the Hudson Valley is ready for political change. In a historically conservative district that increasingly toes the party line, Serino and Smythe’s rematch should be a nailbiter—and with little public polling information in SD-41, it is still unclear exactly where Serino and Smythe stand. We know one thing for certain, though: this is either woman’s race.