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Jerry Kremer

How a virus upended the Democratic primary

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The June New York state primary produced many shocking results. A number of entrenched incumbents were ousted, and a handful of progressive candidates managed to beat party-endorsed candidates. But stories calling the election results a major shift to the left by the Democratic Party are just plain false.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused great turmoil in our daily lives. It also had a dramatic impact on the primary. On April 20, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order requiring the state Board of Elections to send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. That was a gift to every challenger.

In a normal election year, citizens tend to be indifferent about the voting process. Most people won’t take the extra time to get an absentee ballot, even though they’re readily available on the internet. But thanks to the governor, every registered voter got an application to vote absentee, which resulted in millions of ballots, some of which are still being counted.

For many years, incumbent elected leaders would ask their loyal supporters to fill out absentee ballots, while their opponents generally ignored this process. This time, with voters confined to their homes, the challengers mounted strong telephone campaigns, urging potential voters to send in their ballot requests. Many incumbents, distracted by their official duties or maybe just a little cocky, didn’t match the aggressiveness of their challengers.

Another factor in the defeat of some current Democratic office holders was their opponents’ use of social media. Potential voters were housebound, spending a lot of time on their computers, and they were easier to reach by smart challengers. Many of the incumbents haven’t mastered this strategy, and were caught off guard by their challengers’ aggressive campaigning.

Geography had a lot to do with some of the upsets. Districts that had been safe for incumbents have been changing rapidly. There has been a lot of movement into communities with available housing, and overconfident politicians ignored those population shifts. One losing incumbent recently lamented, “I didn’t realize how much my district has changed.”

Party leaders won’t admit that they are losing their influence, but neither political party has the clout that it had in the past. Once upon a time when the party endorsed a candidate, he or she was a sure winner. But in some of the districts where there were serious contests, the party leaders couldn’t deliver the votes.

One result that has received a lot of media attention was the defeat of U.S. Rep. Elliot Engel, the current chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Engel held the 16th Congressional District seat for over 30 years, and obviously became overconfident, thanks to a history of weak opponents. During the height of the coronavirus crises, as he had over the years, Engel spent much of his time in Washington, and with a tough challenger, voters punished him for his absence.

One race in which a progressive newcomer triumphed is a good example of what happens when there are too many candidates running. In the 17th C.D., which covers a portion of Westchester and Rockland counties, the winner, Mondaire Jones, got 47 percent of the vote. Some seven other candidates got a total of 51 percent.

Did the progressives dominate the primary day roster of winners? The answer is no. Twenty incumbents won their contests by wide margins. On Long Island, U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi won 56 percent of the vote, compared with challenger Melanie D’Arrigo’s 32 percent. Incumbents who took their challengers seriously managed to hold on and win.

This year’s primary holds many lessons for candidates. If you’re an incumbent, the moral of the story is that you’d better spend more time in your district and learn to master the challenges of the internet to survive. Like it or not, you’re an endangered species. As for challengers, hopefully there won’t soon be another coronavirus that will interfere with the electoral process, and you won’t get the same breaks.

Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.