New York State has voted for every Democratic presidential nominee since 1988, usually by an overwhelming margin. The State Assembly reflects that political proclivity with consistent Democratic majorities. But with the exception of one brief interregnum in 2009, the upper chamber—the State Senate—has remained firmly under Republican control. There are numerous reasons for this disconnect—from incumbent protection rackets to rampant corruption in the state capital—but in recent years, the key actors in this power play have been a group of Democrats called the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), and New York’s two-term Governor, Andrew Cuomo.
Elected as a Democrat to his first gubernatorial term in 2010, Cuomo quickly acquiesced to an electoral map drawn by (and designed to favor) the New York State GOP. Despite that partisan gerrymander, New York Democrats still managed to claw together a narrow Senate majority in 2012—but that victory was instantly thwarted by four nominally Democratic state Senators who, calling themselves “Independent Democrats,” joined in a power-sharing agreement with the minority to keep control of the State Senate in Republican hands. All of this was done with the tacit approval (and many would say the active engagement) of Cuomo. The IDC members were rewarded with powerful committee seats and “lulus” (New York legislative slang for bonuses doled out to lawmakers in leadership), and Cuomo was able to use a divided legislature as a convenient excuse for his political vicissitudes. At different junctures, the IDC has announced its dissolution (often with the governor taking credit for uniting the party), only to see it return—usually after an election, sometimes with more members, and always firmly allied with Republicans.
For years, this was, unfortunately, seen as largely uncontroversial in New York politics, and (equally as unfortunate and not unrelated) under-covered by the media. But with a blue wave building ahead of the November elections, it’s looking likely that the movement that delivered a primary victory to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over a high-ranking Democratic incumbent in a US House race earlier this summer will crest again in September. And that wave has the potential to wipe out a quarter of the state’s incumbent Democratic caucus. Led by women and the emergent progressive movement, 10 Democrats in the New York State Senate face primary challenges (eight IDC members, one Democrat who outright caucuses with Republicans, and one centrist mainline Democrat), of which at least half are likely to be successful.
And, given the partisan makeup of New York’s electorate, once Democrats take real control of the State Senate, the GOP would have difficulty winning it back. At a time when states could lead the fight against Trumpism, this makes New York’s upper chamber one of the most important battlefields of this election cycle. Still, as the newly engaged progressive base of the Democratic Party looks to make big changes nationally—first fighting Trumpism, then advocating for a more progressive social order—New York’s politics lag behind. And that is mostly due to the efforts of the Independent Democratic Conference.