In Westchester County, a suburb just north of New York City, national events hold a larger significance for local politics than they had previously ahead of this year’s statewide elections, reflecting a national trend that has shaped the county’s politics in the Trump era.
Voters will head to the polls in November to select a raft of state and local officials, including their governor, attorney general, and state legislators. This year, however, like most local elections since the 2016 campaign, these will be a referendum on President Donald Trump as much as the candidates themselves.
Westchester, like similar areas across the country, exemplifies a Trump-era shift from occasional suburban support for Republican candidates to overwhelming victory for Democratic ones. However, Westchester represents this trend to a notably exaggerated extent.
Democrats had already enjoyed a two-to-one voter registration advantage in Westchester, but during previous election cycles, Republican candidates like former two-term county executive Rob Astorino won elected office, in part due to voter apathy during off-year elections that previously failed to excite liberal voters. This is no longer the case as Democrats mobilize in opposition to national political developments driven by the Trump White House and a Republican-controlled congress.
“The positive result is that [Trump’s victory] has gotten people motivated and involved in politics, especially local politics,” said Donny Khan, media relations liaison at Indivisible Westchester.
Indivisible is a national network of activist groups that have cropped up in the wake of Trump’s victory in 2016. Focused on electing progressive candidates, it organizes political meetings that connect candidates with voters, and supports them online and on the campaign trail. Khan said that there are close to 5,000 people on the Westchester chapter’s closed Facebook page.
“I think for us the big one was the County Executive race with Rob Astorino,” said Khan, referring to the two-term Republican incumbent toppled by Democrat George Latimer in the 2017 county executive race. Close observers of Westchester politics credit Indivisible with at least boosting Latimer’s bid.
That race was a bitter political fight that pitted a popular Republican incumbent against a popular Democratic challenger. The two camps traded allegations that included womanizing and tax delinquency ahead of the election, but in the end the charge that Astorino was close to Trump ended up being most decisive. During the race, Democrats linked Astorino to the president’s stance on guns and the environment, among other hot button issues.
Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY, said her research showed that four in ten voters cast their ballots with Trump in mind in 2017. She said that most people would have expected Astorino to win, considering the campaign promises that he fulfilled and the allegations that dogged his opponent.
This trend also played out earlier this year leading up to April’s special election to fill the state senate seat Latimer vacated when he beat Astorino. As during the previous year’s county executive race, national political dynamics favored the Democratic candidate that time. Former state assemblywoman Democrat Shelley Mayer won against Republican and former Rye city mayor Julie Killian.
“We didn’t get enough of our voters out,” said Killian, a two-time state senate candidate and current candidate for New York lieutenant governor, referring to her special election defeat in 2018.
Killian said that whereas Republicans used to turn out to vote in larger numbers during off-year elections, candidates could no longer count on that trend. This has created an opportunity for Westchester Democrats, who have capitalized on Trump’s unpopularity in the county.
The extent to which this dynamic played out in Westchester was evident on campaign signs and in television ads during both races. Mayer and Latimer both labeled themselves Democrats on lawn signs, and Mayer released a commercial that featured Latimer, the former occupant of the seat, condemning “Trump extremists.”
Zaino also cautions that although Democratic candidates have received a slight boost due to Trump’s unpopularity in Westchester, the precise effect remains unclear and requires further research. She does, however, believe that Westchester is an exaggerated example of the national trend of suburban women objecting to Trump’s policies and character.
Reports in the national media have focused extensively on affluent suburban pockets that have turned against the Republican party. The same cycle that Latimer won election, Democrats trounced Republicans in state and local races in Virginia and won control of the Washington State Senate. Control of the U.S. House of Representatives, similarly, could hinge on the political changes in these areas.
Are these changes part of the new normal? Zaino is skeptical.
“I think this is particular to the president and the administration,” she said.