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Blue-state Republican Blues

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Blue-state Republican Blues

Rob Astorino couldn’t hold on in Westchester, even against a lackluster opponent. November 9, 2017
Politics and law

Election Day attention focused, predictably, on high-profile statewide races regarded as bellwethers. But local races were important too, such as the one in Westchester County, New York, in which a back-bench New York State senator unseated two-term incumbent Republican County Executive Rob Astorino. Westchester—like Fairfax County in Virginia or Montgomery County in Maryland—is no minor jurisdiction. Its population is just under 1 million (larger than that of six states) and includes such nationally known, upper-class communities as Scarsdale and Chappaqua. The county is far from uniformly wealthy, however—it contains white working-class bastions (Yonkers), poor African-American cities (Mt. Vernon), and immigrant magnets (Port Chester, Mamaroneck). It makes a good political testbed, even if registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, two to one.

A one-time radio and television producer for ESPN and a pragmatic, innovative Republican who put up a respectable showing in the state gubernatorial race in 2014, Astorino had twice won deep-Blue Westchester—where high incomes meet some of the nation’s highest property taxes—as a fiscal conservative. He made good on his promise to hold the line on county taxes, which have been flat, overall, since 2010. He did so in part by reducing the county’s workforce by 1,000 employees and by playing hardball with public-sector unions, whom he pushed to pay a share of employee health-care costs. He advocated for the privatization of management and maintenance at the dilapidated county-owned airport in White Plains—an arrangement that would have netted millions annually in lease payments and private capital investment for upgrades, but will likely not go forward now, with his defeat. He responded to public concern about Uber and Lyft by initiating a program of voluntary driver-background checks. In a region with a large Hispanic immigrant population, he held off a “sanctuary county” effort led by the Democratic-controlled county legislature, promoting instead a plan for local police to refrain from checking immigrants’ legal status, except when arrested or suspected of criminal activity. Astorino was adept at reaching the compromise in short supply today in American politics.

Ultimately, though, his good ideas couldn’t stem a Democratic tide, even against weak opposition. Astorino’s opponent, State Senator George Latimer, had driven an unregistered car, amassed unpaid parking tickets totaling thousands of dollars, and missed a state budget vote because he was vacationing in London—with a woman not his wife. No matter: Astorino was likely hurt by liberal voter resentment against President Trump. In one television ad, the Latimer campaign flashed a mock cover of Trump’s book The Art of the Deal, doctored to feature the president and Astorino, along with a voice-over: “It’s the Trump playbook, and Rob Astorino copies every word.”

Astorino had romped previously in conservative and Italian-American parts of the county—but he had also won, or come close, in more liberal and moderate sections. In 2013, he narrowly won liberal, multicultural Ossining, by about 100 votes; this year, he lost by almost 2,000. In 2013, he’d come within 150 votes of winning liberal, Jewish Scarsdale; this time he lost it by some 1,300 votes. Last time out, he’d won liberal Pelham outright; this time he lost it badly. What’s more, throughout Westchester, not only did the Democratic vote rise dramatically, but Astorino’s Republican vote also declined. The victorious Latimer received 35,000 more votes than the Democratic loser in 2013, while Astorino’s total was down by 12,000. Democrats were energized, and Republicans appear to have been disaffected.

Astorino may have hurt his cause by permitting a gun show to go on at a county-owned auditorium and generally sticking to a socially conservative agenda. The Blue-state Republican playbook seems to require a mix of fiscal conservatism and social libertarianism; consider Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, currently the nation’s most popular governor. Astorino’s defeat means that New Yorkers have lost a serious policymaker and proven candidate who might have made noise at the state level. In his 2014 gubernatorial run, he held Andrew Cuomo to 54 percent and won most of the state’s counties outside New York City. This year, though, Astorino was apparently sunk by a surge of anti-Trump sentiment.

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