Lawman vs. lawman: The politics of the Ulster County sheriff’s race

(Cartoon by Bruce Ackerman)

It’s going to be an uphill fight in the general election this November 6 for incumbent Ulster County sheriff Paul VanBlarcum, steamrolled in Thursday’s Democratic primary by ex-state police officer and former Marine Juan Figueroa. In unofficial returns, Figueroa (13,119) had 81.9 percent of the Democratic vote against VanBlarcum’s 18 percent (2885). That wasn’t much different from the results of the Democratic county convention in May.

Democratic interest in the primary was unusually high. With 122,265 total registered Ulster County voters, the growing Democratic plurality is significant. Over a third of the 46,384 Democrats enrolled as of last week voted in the sheriff’s race, an indication of heightened voter interest.

As of last week, there were 29,631 registered Republicans in Ulster County and 35,726 persons not enrolled in any party.


How can VanBlarcum win? His side can make several arguments. One is that the Democrats who didn’t vote in the primary feel very differently than those who did. Given the magnitude of the vote, this is a long shot.

A second argument is that VanBlarcum’s minor-party support is much stronger than Figueroa’s. That’s true. The Conservative, Independence, Republican and Reform lines on which the incumbent sheriff will appear will certainly poll higher than the Women’s Equality and Working Families lines on which the challenger will appear. Advantage: VanBlarcum.

A third argument is that those not enrolled in any party are more likely to come down on VanBlarcum’s side. On the one hand, there may be pro-incumbent (‘he’s done a good job”) bias. On the other, there may be an equal or greater amount of anti-incumbent bias.

Finally, the election outcome will be influenced by turnout. If this is a blue-wave year with high Democratic voter numbers, it will help Figueroa. The fact that Republican turnout has traditionally been a few percentage points higher than Democratic turnout should also be taken into consideration. If more Republicans than usual stay home on November 6, down-ballot Republicans will be particularly negatively affected.