On Election Day, voters in Central New York resoundingly rejected national Republican candidates, re-electing President Barack Obama by a vote of 59 percent to Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s 38 percent, choosing Democrat Dan Maffei over conservative opponent Ann Marie Buerkle for Congress and, at a more local level, selecting more liberal Al Stirpe instead of Don Miller.
While the presidential vote isn’t a big surprise — Obama took Onondaga County by a similar margin in the 2008 election — both Maffei and Stirpe lost those seats in the 2010 elections to Buerkle and Miller, respectively. So what made voters change their minds? What made these two candidates, as one politician at the Democrats’ Election Night celebration put it, “Central New York’s Comeback Kids”?
According to the candidates themselves, they simply had the better message.
“You can’t just make stuff up and expect people to believe it,” Stirpe said in his victory speech to supporters on Election Night. “We just talked about what we wanted to do, what we’ve done in the past and forget about everything else, and I think people appreciated that.”
Stirpe also pointed to the negative ads Miller’s campaign ran against him in this campaign and in 2010. He said he, instead, ran a clean campaign.
“The other side might learn a lesson from this and stop all the down-and-dirty stuff they try each and every campaign,” Stirpe said.
For his part, Maffei also pointed to his campaign message.
“I said throughout this campaign that this campaign was about the working people of this country,” he said. “That resonated with people.”
But political experts say there’s more to it than the strength of Central New York’s Democratic candidates. They were helped by the tide of votes for Obama, certainly, according to Grant Reeher, professor of political science and director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. But beyond that, the voters of this region simply didn’t like the conservatism of their opponents.
“I don’t this this was an affirmation for Dan Maffei and his tenure the first time,” Reeher said. “I think it was more a statement about Ann Marie Buerkle and her record. I think it’s not so much that voters decided that they wanted Dan Maffei back, it’s that they wanted a change.”
Reeher said that Buerkle’s conservative voting record and set of issue positions were at odds with a good portion of the 24th Congressional District, which, as a whole, is more moderate, politically speaking.
“I think that, on paper, someone who is able to make the case that they are a more moderate Democrat should be able to be competitive against someone who is a very conservative Republican on the issues,” he said.
Reeher said the vote was not a testament to Buerkle’s failures in terms of serving her constituency.
“By all accounts, she’s done a conscientious job of constituent service,” he said. “I haven’t heard complaints about that. Certainly there are individuals who complain, but I’ve heard no theme or chorus from the district that she didn’t pay attention to that. It’s more about her position-taking in the last two years.”
Because this vote was less an endorsement of Maffei and more a rejection of Buerkle’s ideological statements, the professor said Maffei will need to work hard to maintain his seat in the next two years.
“It speaks to [Maffei’s] continuing vulnerability,” he said. “He needs to figure out a way to better connect with the district. This was not a slam-dunk victory. It was bordering on a comfortable margin, but it was not a beatdown of the other side by any measure. Maffei has his work cut out for him in the next two years.”
The ouster of Buerkle is part of a national trend toward the rejection of “tea party” candidates and a move toward more moderate politics, Reeher said.
“A lot of tea party candidates did not do well,” he said. “There are a number of high-profile Senate races where they seemed to crash and burn. There are other, earlier instances prior to the election where that was the case as well, that waning of winning of election, that hurt Ann Marie Buerkle. It seems like those candidates didn’t do all that well, and that may be the case here, as well. She’s too far to the right to fit the district properly.”
The same was true in the Stirpe-Miller race, where Miller, a highly conservative politician who often voted against his own party, didn’t fit the dynamics of the 127th Assembly District.
“Voters had buyers’ remorse with Don Miller,” Reeher said. “When he ran the first time, he had no record, and this time, his record was extremely conservative, maybe even more out on the edge in the Assembly than Buerkle was in Congress. Voters concluded he was not a good fit.”
In the Assembly race, Reeher said a few other factors helped Stirpe gain the victory where he was unsuccessful in 2010.
“Stirpe’s margin of victory was bigger [than Maffei’s], and I think that’s because of Stirpe’s message,” he said. “The theme of his campaign in 2012 was similar to his 2010 effort, it was just tweaked a little. In 2010, voters were not really interested in hearing from a state legislative candidate who was saying, ‘What I’ve done is gone to Albany and brought back local money from the state.’ We were in the middle of the crisis of the state budget, and in the midst of all of chaos going on, that message not one that was appealing. Miller ran as critical of Stirpe and ran a very negative campaign, and he was not a well-known entity himself. Given his attacks on Stirpe, the fact that he was a lesser-known alternative and the climate where Stirpe’s arguments were ones that the electorate was not interested in hearing, Miller got the vote.
“Fast forward two years. Albany is functioning better. Stirpe campaigns on a more nuanced version of that claim that he’ll bring more jobs and work within the system like he did before and therefore, be a more effective legislator. Meanwhile, all Don Miller has done is made speeches that are pretty far out there on the conservative scale, and Stirpe wins back his seat.”
According to Reeher, the Republicans should learn some important lessons from this election, namely that such conservative candidates will likely not do well in this area.
“This creates an interesting question for the Republicans going forward: where do they go from here? The Republican Party had a lot of problems and a lot of missteps. They’ve had difficulty finding strong candidates, and at the state level, too. It’s an interesting thing to watch,” Reeher said. “So what do they conclude? How do they approach the 2014 race? The results suggest there’s room for a more moderate candidate, a Republican who’s more able to connect with the voters.”
Ned Campbell contributed to the reporting for this story.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.