With the final election results now tallied, there’s no question this year’s usually large number of absentee ballots favored Democrats. But something else also seems clear: The margin of victory for many Democratic candidates fell well short of the financial advantage they accumulated during the campaign.
The state Board of Elections on Dec. 3 certified the results for all federal, state and local races. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, nearly 20 percent of approximately 13.6 million total registered voters statewide had requested absentee ballots. In Monroe County, the figures were 26.1 percent, or nearly 136,500 ballots.
When the absentee ballots were added to Election Day tallies, Democrats in key local races increased their victory margins or turned a narrow lead into a more comfortable win—or, in one case, came from behind.
Before absentee ballots were counted, Jen Lunsford trailed Republican incumbent Mark Johns by more than 6,200 votes in the 135th District Assembly race. In the certified result, however, Lunsford prevailed 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent—a margin of 731 votes out of more than 82,000 cast.
In the hours after the polls closed Nov. 3, two key state Senate contests also were neck and neck. In the 55th District, where Republican Sen. Rich Funke had opted not to run for re-election, Democrat Samra Brouk had an edge of 52.2 percent to 47.8 percent over Christopher Missick, the GOP candidate. The 56th District vote was even tighter. Democrat Jeremy Cooney’s edge over Republican David Michael Barry was fewer than 1,000 votes or 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent.
The Democrats’ margins in the certified results were considerably larger: Brouk won 57.4 percent to 42.6 percent, while Cooney’s edge was 55.8 percent to 44.2 percent.
With all districts reporting in the Monroe County clerk’s race election night, Democrat Jamie Romeo (52.2 percent) led her Republican challenger, county lawmaker Karla Boyce (47.8 percent), by less than 5 points. When the vote count was finalized, Romeo’s margin of victory (57.8 percent to 42.2 percent) had tripled to more than 15 points.
The winners of the two congressional races contested in Monroe County did not seem in doubt on election night, but as in the other local races, the final tallies changed considerably once the absentee ballots were counted.
In the 25th District, with nearly all election districts reporting on Nov. 4, incumbent Democrat Joe Morelle had a lead of less than 10 points over Republican challenger George Mitris, 53.2 percent to 45.2 percent. That edge swelled to more than 20 points in the certified results, 57.9 percent to 35.8 percent.
The 27th District, which includes a small portion of Monroe County, favors Republicans, and at the end of the night on Nov. 3, GOP incumbent Chris Jacobs led Democratic challenger Nate McMurray by a large margin, 64.2 percent to 34.5 percent. Absentee ballots narrowed the margin, but not nearly enough for McMurray: Jacobs won, 59.7 percent to 39 percent.
The deadline for political candidates’ post-election financial disclosure reports arrived just days before the vote counts were certified. In each of the key local races, the winner also had an advantage in money raised—but the edge in many cases was decidedly narrower than the vote margin.
The exception was the Jacobs-McMurray congressional contest. According to OpenSecrets.org, Jacobs raised nearly $2.1 million since Jan. 1, the most of any local candidate and almost 64 percent of the total money raised in the 27th District. McMurray’s share was 35 percent, or about $1.2 million. For both candidates, percentages varied from their shares of the vote by only 4 points.
By contrast, Morelle—second only to Jacobs in campaign contributions this year—raised more than $1.4 million. That figure represented more than 82 percent of all funds contributed in the 25th District. The Mitris campaign collected only $301,376—and most of that amount was self-funded. Yet with less than 18 percent of all money raised by 25th District candidates (Libertarian Kevin Wilson also was on the ballot), Mitis captured nearly 36 percent of the vote.
In the two state Senate races, Democrats Brouk and Cooney had big—in Cooney’s case, enormous—monetary advantages. Brouk raised more than $1.1 million and Cooney pulled in roughly $880,000. Those figures represent 76 percent and 96 percent, respectively, of the contributions in the 55th and 56th District races. Their vote totals—57.4 percent and 55.8 percent—were far smaller though enough to win. (Missick’s campaign was bolstered by more than $230,000 in loans from the candidate; Cooney loaned his campaign about $52,000.)
In the 135th Assembly District, Lunsford’s electoral margin (50.4 percent to 49.6 percent) over Johns was razor thin despite the fact she outraised him $673,888 (77 percent of the district total) to $199,843 (23 percent).
Compared with the other contests, much less money flowed to the county clerk’s race. Romeo raised nearly $77,000 (68 percent), more than double the almost $37,000 (32 percent) that went to Boyce’s campaign. Again, the vote was closer: 57.8 percent to 42.2 percent.
The money factor
To be sure, campaign war chests are not the only factor that can sway election outcomes. In the Rochester region, voter enrollment in both the city and many suburban communities has shifted markedly toward the Democrats—a blue wave that has been under way for two decades.
Perhaps reflecting that shift, the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee—which typically backs Republicans—endorsed Brouk and Cooney this time.
In addition, this year’s presidential race drove up voter turnout overall and Democrats’ fervor in particular. The certified results in Monroe County showed Democrat Joe Biden beating incumbent Republican Donald Trump by a wide margin: 59.4 percent versus 38.3 percent, or a difference of 80,085 votes. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton’s edge over Trump in Monroe County was smaller: 53.7 percent to 38.9 percent.
However, since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the role of money in elections—especially from corporations, political action committees and other sources—has been the focus of increased scrutiny and concern. This year, significant amounts of outside funds flowed to some local candidates. Brouk, Cooney and Lunsford each benefited from more than a half-million dollars in state Democratic campaign committee expenditures. Missick and Johns each received nearly $140,000 in state GOP funds.
Still, it remains an open question whether campaign contributions have a big impact on local elections—or rather the money trails largely trace where the voters already were headed.
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.