On Feb. 20, some 300 members of the Ulster County Democratic Committee packed the ballroom of the Kingston Best Western, braving an ice storm to select a slate of candidates for county office and citywide elections in Kingston. The nominating convention featured a contested ballot for county executive and another for a legislature seat representing Saugerties. When the convention ended, Democrats had fielded a full slate of candidates, save four legislature districts where party officials expressed confidence they would be able to recruit candidates prior to the election.
Three days later, 100 members of the Ulster County Republican Committee gathered at Ulster Town Hall in Lake Katrine for an hour-long nominating convention. The meeting ended with two empty spots at the top of the ballot — for county executive and county court judge — and six vacancies on the legislature ballot. (GOP Chairman Roger Rascoe indicated this week that they expected to field a candidate for the April 30 county executive special election.) The City of Kingston Republican Committee put forth just two names for 13 elected offices up for grabs in November — incumbent District 7 Legislator Brian Woltman for re-election and businessman Vince Rua for mayor. Rua would, within hours, decline the nomination, citing the lack of a Republican slate to run with.
The contrast between the two conventions marks the culmination of a decades-long decline of Ulster County’s Republican Party driven by demographic changes, the rightward drift of the GOP on the national level and, more recently, hyper-partisanship driven by the election of President Donald J. Trump.
“All of those [Republicans] who cared, who spent their careers here and built businesses here have packed up and moved,” said Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley III. Quigley was a favorite to head up Republicans’ 2019 ticket as a candidate for county executive. But he declined to run in part because, he said, he believes the party no longer has a path to victory in countywide elections. “The ones who have stayed are just beaten down. They have the same attitude I do, why would I want to expose myself to getting kicked in the nuts?”
In 1996, Republicans enjoyed a 4,000-vote margin over Democrats in Ulster County, while voters not enrolled in any party made up a plurality of the electorate. By the turn of the century, the pendulum had swung and Democrats held a small lead. That pendulum would continue to swing through the administration of George W. Bush, with both major parties at various times holding margins of a few thousand while non-party-enrolled voters made up the largest share of voters.
The trend in favor of Democrats began to accelerate during the Obama administration. By 2010, the party had surged ahead, with 37,229 registered voters compared to 33,408 non-party-enrolled and 29,409 Republicans. Those numbers remained largely unchanged in 2015. Then came the Trump’s election and with it, a cascade of new Democratic Party enrollment. As of last month, there were 46,877 Democrats, 33,401 non-party-enrolled voters and 28,228 Republicans in Ulster County. Those numbers, said former Kingston alderman Tom Hoffay, who chaired the Ulster County Democratic Committee through much of the 1990s, represent a daunting obstacle to any Republican seeking countywide office.
“Just do the math,” said Hoffay. “If you’re a Democrat you just have to get all of your people out — now that doesn’t always happen — but if you do, you only need less than 50 percent of the non-enrolleds. If you’re a Republican you need to get all of your people out and get 60 percent of the non-enrolleds.”
Rock-ribbed Republican no more
Experts say a number of factors are driving the Democrats ascendance in Ulster County and other once reliably red parts of the Hudson Valley. A major reason is the northward expansion of the New York City metropolitan region. As long established Hudson Valley residents die or move out, their replacements increasingly have roots in more liberal downstate communities. Hoffay recalls a concerted effort by Ulster County Democrats in the 1990s to get second-homeowners and recent transplants to participate in local politics. A 1992 court decision opened the way for students at SUNY New Paltz to vote locally, turning once reliably Republican New Paltz into a Democratic bastion. Increased migration from downstate after the 9/11 terror attacks and the rise of telecommuting accelerated the trend.
“The 1990s is when it really began to change,” said Hoffay. “The whole Route 209 corridor started flipping back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. Places that had never really been competitive suddenly became competitive.”
Gerald Benjamin, a professor and dean at SUNY New Paltz who has spent decades studying and writing about New York State politics said that along with demographic changes, the rightward tilt of the Republican Party had hurt the party’s prospects in places like New York. The old breed of New York Republicans, focused on fiscal discipline over hot-button social issues, increasingly found themselves in the wilderness in the party of Trump.
“The party has to create room for a place like New York that has room for center-right politics but not far-right politics,” said Benjamin.
Trump motivates Dems
John Faso knows about the Trump effect firsthand. The 66-year-old Kinderhook resident and onetime state Assembly minority leader was elected to Congress in 2016 to represent the 19th Congressional District, an 11-county swath of upstate New York that includes Ulster County. Despite efforts to distance himself from Trump’s brand of hard-edged Republicanism, Faso found himself beset, virtually from the moment he took office, by an energized Democratic Party base. Protestors rallied outside his office on Broadway in Kingston every Friday for the duration of his term. Other activists staged a sit-in at his Kinderhook office. When Democrats sought a candidate to take him on in the 2018 midterm elections, seven people stepped forward for a hotly contested primary that drew a record turnout. The winner of that primary, Antonio Delgado, would go on to beat Faso in the general election buoyed by massive turnout among Ulster County Democrats.
Shortly after the election Trump sent out a Tweet blaming Faso’s failure to wholeheartedly embrace his administration for the congressman’s defeat, an analysis that Faso rejects. Instead, Faso blames Trump for tarnishing the GOP brand in moderate swing districts, where Republicans suffered major losses in the midterms helping to deliver the House of Representatives to Democrats.
“[Trump] was a major factor in my loss, but also in our loss of the House. We lost 40 seats and at least 30 of them were in more moderate districts like mine,” said Faso. “There is a level of activism on the Democratic side that is a direct response to the election of President Trump.”
In Ulster County, that activism has taken the form of a swelling voter enrollment and what Ulster County Democratic Committee Chairman Frank Cardinale called an unprecedented level of activism by committee members and rank and file Democrats. Town committees, which once struggled to fill vacancies, now have waiting lists. “Indivisible” groups formed after the 2016 election to supplement the committees, providing increasingly well-seasoned volunteers for phone-banking, canvassing and other boots-on-the-ground campaign work.
“The energy level of the town committees and the Indivisible groups is just incredible,” said Cardinale. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Democrats’ new dominance in Ulster County was on full display in the 2018 elections. Democratic candidates for the state Senate representing parts of Ulster County flipped two Republican districts, helping Democrats take control of the body for the first time in decades.
As the party grows stronger in Ulster County, it has also become more ideologically driven. Nothing illustrates that trend more that the victory of Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa over longtime incumbent Paul VanBlarcum. VanBlarcum, a Democrat, served in the sheriff’s office for 43 years and was elected to the top post in 2007. For his last four-year term he was cross-endorsed by Democrats, Republicans and the Conservative Party for what was largely seen as a non-political post.
In 2017, VanBlarcum traveled to Washington D.C. for Law Enforcement Memorial Week. During the visit he had his photograph taken with Trump in the Oval Office. That photo, along with an earlier social media post calling on pistol permit holders to carry their weapons to promote public safety and another criticizing NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, unleashed a tide of anger at the erstwhile Democratic sheriff. Figueroa, who positioned himself as a progressive criminal justice reformer, was able to ride that tide to victory, first in a Democratic primary then, after VanBlarcum secured the Republican and Conservative Party lines, in the general election.
“That was a warning sign that things have changed in Ulster County,” said Hoffay. “Simply beating the drum on ‘I’m tough on crime’ is not enough.”
That filtering down of ideologically driven politics from the national level to local elections threatens the last GOP strongholds in Ulster County — the County Legislature and the elected bodies of 20 towns and the City of Kingston. Five of those 20 towns are governed by a solid Republican majority; three and the City of Kingston are solidly Democratic. The remaining are represented by a mix of Republicans, Democrats and non-enrolled officials. Republicans hold 11 of 23 seats on the County legislature, the county clerk’s office, the District Attorney’s Office and the county judgeship.
A blue future
But cross endorsements for what were once viewed as essentially non-partisan posts have become increasingly rare as Democrats find themselves with a surplus of eager candidates and voters and candidates alike increasingly shy away from association with the GOP brand. Two Republican incumbents, DA Holley Carnright and County Court Judge Donald Williams, will not seek re-election this year. Others, like Quigley, say they’re reluctant to run in such a hyper-partisan environment.
“The atmosphere has become so toxic a lot of people are just saying to hell with it,” said Quigley. “If you vote against someone who is competent and experienced just because they have an ‘R’ next to their name on the ballot, you deserve to get a tax increase that you can’t afford.”
Benjamin believes the path out of the wilderness for New York Republicans will be long and difficult. He said the erosion of the party’s base has been so complete that it has left party leaders with little to build on. Without a foothold in statewide office, Benjamin said, the party has lost a traditional training ground for up-and-coming politicians. Benjamin credited strong party organizations in Orange and Dutchess counties with preserving the GOP’s footing in the Hudson Valley, but added that Democrats are making gains in both places.
“It’s a tall order,” said Benjamin. “It’s a decades-long process to rebuild after you’ve lost your base.”
Republicans best hope for a return to viability might lay with Democrats and the hubris and factionalism that often accompanies one-party rule. Faso noted fissures had already begun to appear between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democrats in the legislature over the loss of New York City’s deal with e-retail giant Amazon. Similar frictions between a new breed of ultra-progressives and traditional Democrats are playing out on local committees across the country. Faso predicted that the policies of an unbridled Democratic base would inevitably swing too far left for many voters, thereby creating room for a Republican rebound.
“Clearly Democrats are more motivated right now, just like Republicans were more motivated in 2010,” said Faso. “They are in a dominant position right now, but their policies are going to drive people away and a more traditional equilibrium will return.”
With additional reporting by Hugh Reynolds
Editor’s note: The original version of this story misstated the location of the Feb. 23 GOP county convention.