How Did Rachel May Upset David Valesky in NY Senate-53? By Luke Perry
First time candidate Rachel May delivered an upset victory yesterday in the Democratic primary for New York’s 53rd Senate district. This was the first primary challenge faced by incumbent David Valesky since he was elected in 2005. Valesky was deputy leader of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a key factor this primary. Six of eight IDC incumbents lost, even though the coalition was dissolved earlier this year at Governor Cuomo’s behest.
May won 52 percent of the vote compared to 48 percent for Valesky, a difference of 606 votes. The tally is unofficial as absentee ballots will be counted in the coming weeks. May will not declare victory until that is complete, while Valesky has yet to concede. There is unlikely to be a different outcome absent a counting error.
Why was Rachel May successful?
1. New York Democrats moved left in response to Donald Trump
Democrats are energized and enthused in opposing President Trump, particularly in New York, one of the foremost liberal states in the country. Yesterday’s primary exemplifies how this has implications for state elections as well as national elections.
Governor Cuomo, and his favored candidates for Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General, were all successful in securing the Democratic nomination. Local NY Senate candidates tied to Republicans through the IDC were less able to nationalize their respective races, faced more idiosyncratic electorates, and had smaller political machines to rely on. Valesky, for instance, focused on his accomplishments, legislatively and in terms of securing resources, but this did not provide sufficient ideological purity for the majority of Democratic primary voters.
2. Personalizing the campaigning worked for May
Rachael May’s video introduction to her campaign spoke in very personal terms about healthcare, the top domestic issue for Democrats over the last decade, framing her main legislative priority, passing The New York State Health Act. Liberal Democrats have increasingly incorporated family experiences in advocating for their political values, particularly more progressive ones.
This approach resonates with primary electorates comprised of more ideological and enthused party members. It also reflects a contrast to incumbents, such as Valesky, who spoke more tactically about considerations like upstate vs. downstate power struggles. The latter approach appears to have fallen short in this political moment defined by hyper partisanship, increased polarization and a rise in political values impacting one’s identity.
3. “Bernie or Bust” lives on in local elections
The viewpoints expressed by Rachel May supporters during the campaign were reminiscent of Bernie Sanders supporters at the 2016 Democratic convention. “Bernie or bust” delegates believed Sanders was leading a movement to retake democracy. Anyone but him, an authentic progressive revolutionary, was not worthy of consideration, let alone support.
May has not referred to herself in revolutionary terms, but she has explicitly focused on a variant of liberal populism dedicated to reestablishing a lost and unaccountable democracy. In this way, May has argued that democracy can and should function better. She put herself forward as an unexpected advocate for the people, and now, evidence that change is possible.
4. Grass roots organizing can deliver
One of the most significant developments for the left in recent years has been increased involvement and sophistication of grassroots organizations, reflecting Democratic enthusiasm. This cycle’s primaries have demonstrated the ability of these organizations to mobilize as well.
May understood that her path to victory ran through Onondaga County, her home turf. The campaign identified necessary turnout targets and realized their goals through extensive collaboration with several grassroots organizations, such as No IDC NY, True Blue New York, and Citizen Action of New York, to name a few, as well as The Working Families Party. This speaks to how nontraditional bases of political support have developed around the state for both national and state offices.
Rachel May will face Janet Burman (R) in the general election this November, pending official results.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College