During an election night Zoom call, Julie Shiroishi, Campaign Manager at Karen Smythe for New York State Senate, cautioned the press that many local races may not be determined until close to Thanksgiving. Smythe, a Democrat, conceded her race to Republican incumbent Sen. Sue Serino the next day, but other races—including Democrat Jessica Segal’s bid against Republican Peter Forman for Dutchess County Court Judge—remained to be determined. As vote totals have crystallized in the past weeks, Democrats secured some important victories, but fell decisively short of the landslides that their growing voter registration advantage over the GOP would have suggested. Faced with a sobering post-election reality, Dutchess Democrats must ask whether the county’s long awaited blue wave will ever arrive.
The Dutchess County absentee ballot tabulation process was responsible for the delays, which gave the county until Nov. 30 to certify election results. Having waited until the Tuesday after Election Day to unseal roughly 31,000 absentee ballots, the county has been working on the meticulous process of counting and verifying these ballots for over two weeks. Republican Board of Elections Commissioner Erik Haight explained that this process ensures that the county has time to verify voter information, weed out any duplicate votes and track voters who may have registered and/or voted in other counties. Upon Monday’s certification, which officially put Dutchess County’s voter turnout rate at nearly 80 percent, Democratic Board of Elections Commissioner Elizabeth Soto said in a press release Monday that, “The hurdles that came with this pervasive virus during a presidential election were daunting, but our duty to administer a fair and open election system was met head-on with good planning and excellent staff. I’m proud of every single one of them.”
What exactly hangs in the balance of these long-awaited outstanding vote totals?
For one, they delivered the county to President-elect Joseph Biden, who was trailing President Donald Trump by just 1.6 points in Election Day votes. With a three-to-one lead over Trump in absentee ballots, Biden ultimately prevailed with roughly 53.5 percent of the overall vote total, putting him about 10 points ahead of Trump and outperforming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 total by six points. They have also put Segal on top in the race for county court judge—a seat that has never before been filled by a Democrat.
Other Democrats have seen their margins strengthen, but no other major races appear to be at risk of flipping. Democratic U.S. Representatives Sean Patrick Maloney and Antonio Delgado have held their leads, which looked narrower on Election Day than many expected. And while Serino’s lead over Smythe—which was roughly 15 points on election day—has narrowed significantly, Serino remains victorious. It will now be up to the State Board of Elections to complete the certification of these races that overlap into other counties.
As these results are finalized, it looks as though Democrats’ performance in the county, despite outperforming Republicans in many races, reflects the party’s nationwide disappointment further down the ballot. With nearly 20,000 more voters registered than the GOP, Democrats were holding their breath for a GOP bloodbath that never came.
For Dutchess County Democrats, Smythe’s performance, which trailed that of other Democrats on the ballot, may be a particular cause for reflection. Both county election commissioners acknowledged that a significant number of voters broke Democratic party lines only with their vote for Serino.
Soto, the Democratic Commissioner, had a significantly different analysis of Smythe’s underperformance than Haight, the Republican Commissioner. Soto said that Serino’s impressive performance was most likely due to the services she offered to her constituents in their fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, but remarked that “[t]here’s nothing that Karen didn’t do as a candidate. She was a great candidate.” Haight agreed that Serino’s constituent services were a plus, later taking a critical view of Smythe’s character as a candidate. Applauding Serino for being “very likeable,” he asserted that Smythe “frankly is not very likeable at all…just a zero.”
Both election commissioners also shared disparate views on the county’s recent leftward shift.
Speaking on Democrats’ substantial registration advantage, Haight claimed that long-standing GOP policies have made Dutchess County “great,” and cited the exodus of New York City and Westchester County residents to Dutchess as the source of the county’s more recent ideological shift. He also claimed that these newer residents are “[u]ninformed and don’t do the research before they vote…these people that are uninformed are going to vote straight Democrat.” Soto, taken aback by Haight’s categorization, asserted that “They’re on top of it and they’re not ignorant.”
Vassar Professor of Political Science Richard Born is doubtful that these progressive strides are happening, and is skeptical of the county’s capacity for substantial partisan change in the coming years.
Born asserted that this election demonstrated the vitality of Trumpism in the county, and that despite Trump’s loss, other GOP candidates still performed relatively well—a telling sign that party registration does not always align with ideological identification. Smythe’s loss was in line with broader national trends, and the closeness of Maloney’s race against Chele Farley, who he says was the GOP’s “sacrificial lamb” in her 2018 landslide defeat against Democratic U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, is a disappointment for Democrats. In other words, despite Democrats’ substantial registration advantage, registration totals shouldn’t be viewed as an accurate indicator of eventual vote totals.
In the future, Born suggested paying attention to the Dutchess County Legislature, which may be a valuable opportunity for Democratic pick-ups following the passage of a ballot measure calling for an independent commission to redraw county legislative districts. He cautioned that the County Executive seat, currently held by Republican Marc Molinaro, will be difficult to flip, explaining that despite their growing confidence, Democrats continue to lose their bids for the seat by significant margins.
2020 was not a terribly glum year for Dutchess County Democrats—Segal’s historic win and Biden’s solid margin were bright signals for the party. Nonetheless, the future of Dutchess County politics may be more conservative than a rapidly growing Democratic presence would suggest.