Still-undecided races in two state Senate districts hold the key to giving Democrats a numerical majority in the chamber that would usually mean the power to dominate committees and set the legislative agenda for the next two years.
However, reminders of the failed Democratic leadership four years ago leave that in doubt. In fact, Republicans could retain their control with the help of a few independent Democrats in what some observers are likening to a coalition government with a more bipartisan approach.
As of Friday, Democrats have won 31 seats with Republicans holding 30 in the 63-seat chamber. Democrats need one of the two races to be determined by absentee ballots for a majority, which would return them to power when the Legislature convenes in January. Under ordinary circumstances, Republicans would need both districts. However, it is not politics-as-usual this year. Regardless of the outcome, five rogue Democrats hold the key to determining which party will rule the Senate.
Newly-elected Brooklyn Democrat Simcha Felder says it is in the interests of his constituents to caucus with the Republicans when he takes his seat in January. He would bring the GOP support to 31, or one short of the 32 seats needed for control. But four members of the Independent Democratic Caucus have made no public commitments. The breakaway group, including Sen. David Valesky from Oneida, was formed in 2011 and has often voted with the Republican majority.
Republicans have controlled the Senate since the mid-1960s, except for the 2009-10 session. Lingering memories of the inept Democratic leadership then under Sen. Malcolm Smith could persuade one or more of the IDC to align with Republicans. Sen. Smiths leadership was marred by chaos, paralysis and two coups that saw the leadership seesaw between Democrats and Republicans.
Of note, Sen. Smith could put his political ambitions ahead of party loyalty by joining the GOP opposition. The Queens Democrat is interested in running for New York City mayor on the Republican line.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said he will stay out of the leadership fight, but observers say he would benefit politically. He has been able to work with fiscally conservative Republicans in closing the state deficit, but Republican support also helped pass same-sex marriage legislation.
The coalition-building has two risks. First, it could lead to behind-the-scenes promises on policy and leadership posts for the independents. They could also gain inordinate influence over legislation to retain their backing.
However a Republican-led coalition leadership could be in upstate interests by retaining the regions strong voice needed in the Legislature.