On Staten Island, Nicole Malliotakis claimed victory late Tuesday but incumbent Max Rose refused to concede. In the State Senate, Democrat Andrew Gounardes is trailing Republican Vito Bruno by about 6,000 votes. Plus more results.

Adi Talwar

The scene inside the poll site at Staten Island’s P.S. 65 on Election Day.

The national picture of tight races and apparent setbacks for Democrats in the 2020 election mirrored itself in the early returns for New York’s state and local races, with a multitude of mail-in ballots left to be counted as of Wednesday morning. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat, held a 224 to 213 lead in the electoral college as of 7 a.m. Wednesday over Republican President Donald Trump, according to CNN. Biden led the national popular vote by 2.5 million votes. Nine states remained undecided: Biden had leads in states representing 31 electoral votes. Trump was leading in five states encompassing 70 electoral votes—but that included Pennsylvania, where the counting of mail-in ballots still looms. Neither man can win the presidency now without the Keystone State. Democrats looked likely to expand their margin in the House but Republicans looked increasingly sure to hang on to the Senate.

Television networks called New York for Biden moments after the polls closed. In the latest returns, with many thousands of absentee ballots outstanding, Biden led Trump 55 to 43 percent in the state, and 73 to 26 percent in the city. Trump’s share of the state and city vote is substantially higher than it was in 2016, when he won 36 percent statewide and 18 percent in the city, but Biden’s margin is likely to swell as mail-in ballots are tallied.

While there was little suspense about the presidential contest in New York, several Congressional and state legislative races were hotly contested across the 62 counties—including two in New York City: Democratic Rep. Max Rose’s battle against Republican Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis and the race between Democratic State Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Republican Vito Bruno. Both districts flipped from red to blue in 2018, but had gone for Trump in 2016.

At present, Malliotakis leads Rose 58 percent to 42 percent and holds a margin of 37,000 votes. Gounardes was trailing Bruno 54 to 46 percent, but that represented a narrower margin: About 6,000 votes.

Malliotakis claimed victory late Tuesday but Rose refused to concede. “At this moment there are more than 40,000 absentee ballots that were returned, with potentially 10,000 more in the mail. As a soldier who fought for our democracy,” Rose told supporters. “I believe every vote must be counted.”

Republican ground game was highly visible

Election 2020 is far from over, with hundreds of thousands of ballots still to be tallied across many states, including New York. However, the effort to explain the apparent discrepancy between pre-election polls that foretold a relatively comfortable victory for Biden and the very tight early results was already underway. Misinformation, foreign interference and a lack of enthusiasm for Biden might have played a role, but in the immediate aftermath of Election Day Republicans put the emphasis on their ground game.

On Staten Island, which makes up the majority of the 11th Congressional District which Rose and Malliotakis are battling for, supporters of the Republican slate held huge placards at polling places across the south and middle of the borough throughout Tuesday. That reinforced a visual (and often inaccurate) message denouncing Rose as a “sellout,” an ally of Mayor de Blasio and an enabler of violent criminals, stapled to utility poles and chain-link fences. Pickup trucks flying Trump flags were not a heavy presence, but were certainly more visible than any pro-Biden effort.

Most polling places saw a steady stream of voters throughout the day, with few long lines. Poll-site coordinators reported occasional confrontations with individual voters who refused to take off campaign paraphernalia—which cannot legally be worn inside polling places—but none reported any official poll-monitoring effort by campaigns or parties. There were no reports of serious problems with voter lists or voting machines.

As the polls neared closing time, a long line stretched out of P.S. 57 Hubert H. Humphrey School in Staten Island’s Park Hill neighborhood. Jennifer Gray stood across the street from the school shouting into a bullhorn. “This is the African get-out-the-vote operation. Vote Row A. Row A! Row A! Row A!,” she said, referring to the Democratic line. “Park Hill is going to deliver. 3,000 votes is the number tonight.” She had been delivering that message all day, her colleagues said. Down the block, a DJ cranked out soul and R&B standards from a truck-bed bedecked with speakers. In front of the school, Rose greeted voters.

Inside, poll-site supervisor Sheila Crooks said the heavy Election Day turnout was surprising, since early voting had been so strong. “We have had a lot of new voters here today, thank God,” she said. The day had gone smoothly, with no problems that required calling the Board of Elections. The only issue was that at 7 p.m., no police officer was on duty inside the polling place. One had been on duty earlier in the day, but had left. She had called the precinct to arrange for another officer to be dispatched.

Outside, however, the NYPD was quite present. A commander instructed Gray not to use the megaphone and told the DJ to shut down. A police vehicle parked nearby to make sure they complied. Gray rolled up a poster to shout through and kept up her monologue. “I think she’s louder now,” one of her fellow volunteers joked.

Max Rose supporters hold signs on Staten Island on Election Day.

Congressional disappointments for Democrats

Rose’s election-night deficit was just one bit of bad news for New York Democrats viewing Congressional returns on Wednesday morning. On Long Island, Nancy Goroff, a Democrat hoping to unseat Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin, trailed by 65,000 votes. A bid by Democrat Jackie Gordon to capture the seat being yielded by the retiring Republican Pete King appeared to have failed, as Andrew Garbarino led 54 to 38 percent. 

Meanwhile, Thomas Suozzi, the Democratic incumbent in a district spanning parts of Nassau and Queens counties, was trailing Republican George Santos 47.21 percent to 45.76 percent. 

Outside of the Rose-Malliotakis matchup, Democrats cruised in city Congressional contests, with newcomers Ritchie Torres and Jamaal Bowman easily winning elections to the seats now held by Jose Serrano and Eliot Engel, respectively.

Upstate, Democratic Rep. Anthony Delgado held a 48-45 lead against Republican Kyle Van De Water. Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, an incumbent, was clinging to a 6,000-vote lead against Republican Chele Farley. But Claudia Tenney, a Republican, held a substantial lead over incumbent Democrat Anthony Brindisi. And Democrat Dana Balter fell short against Republican incumbent John Katko.

Setbacks in the Senate, Surprises in the Assembly?

The Gounardes-Bruno race was the only competitive State Senate race in the five boroughs. Elsewhere in the state, Democrats had hoped to defend four vulnerable seats and pick up some districts opened up by the retirement of long-time Republican incumbents. Hopes for a Democratic supermajority in the Senate—which would allow them to pass bills over the governor’s veto—do not appear likely to materialize.

On Long Island, Democrat Sen. Kevin Thomas trailed Republican Dennis Dunne, Sr., 49 to 43 percent, Republican challenger Edmund Smyth led Democratic Sen. James Gaughran, and Republican Alexis Welk held a 53-41 percent deficit against incumbent Democrat Monica Martinez. Upstate, Democrat Pete Harckham was in danger of losing his seat to Rob Astorino, a Republican; the latter led 51-45 at last count. 

Ten Republican seats were open on Nov.  3 thanks to incumbents retiring or seeking higher office. According to preliminary results, the GOP looked set to hang on to at least eight of them. Democrats Samra Brouk and Jeremy Cooney held narrow leads in the 55th and 56th districts. 

Coming off her surprise victory in the June primary, nurse and tenant organizer Phara Souffrant Forrest –running on the Democratic line—defeated incumbent Democratic Assemblyman Walter Mosley in Brooklyn. Mosley had campaigned on the Working Families line, but the WFP withdrew its support after Mosley’s primary loss. 

Incumbent Rebecca Seawright, a Democrat who failed to secure the party line because of a paperwork error, ran as a third party candidate and turned back a challenge from Republican Louis Puliafito, 55 to 45 percent.

Democrats, many of them running unopposed, won Assembly races across the city, as expected. But there was drama in three races. On Staten Island, well-established incumbent Democrat Michael Cusick was trailing Republican Anthony DeGuerre 51 to 49 percent. In the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, Republican Mark Szuszkiewicz led incumbent Democrat Mathylde Frontus 54 to 46 percent. And five-term Queens incumbent Edward C. Braunstein, a Democrat, was behind Republican challenger John-Alexander M. Sakelos 52 to 48 percent. The margin in all three races was close enough that absentee ballots could change the complexion of the results. That did not appear to be the case in the 64th Assembly district, which covers eastern Staten Island and part of southern Brooklyn and is the seat Malliotakis gave up to run for Congress. Democrats had hopes for Brandon Patterson, a state Senate aide, but he trailed Republican prosecutor Michael Tannousis 64 to 36 percent.

City races follow the script, and more loom

Democratic City Councilmember Donovan Richards defeated Queens Republican Chairwoman Joan Ariola to be the next Queens borough president. Richards, who prevailed as expected despite Ariola’s cash advantage in the race’s final days, will serve the remainder of the term of Melinda Katz, who became Queens’ district attorney in January. In the other municipal race, Darma Diaz was uncontested in her pursuit of the 37th district City Council seat covering parts of East New York and Bushwick, which Rafael Espinal vacated in January to take a job in the nonprofit sector. Both Richards and Diaz will face another election in 2021, possibly as early as the Democratic primary in June.

As many as four municipal elections could occur before that, all in the Bronx. There will be a special election to fill the seat that had been held by Andy King before his expulsion last month. Ruben Diaz Sr. has said he will retire from the Council at year’s end. And two members of the Council won new offices on Election Day: Andrew Cohen was elected judge, and Torres won the Congressional seat. 

In the city’s most hotly contested judicial race, former Assemblyman Ronald Castorina, a Republican, defeated Democratic attorney Allyn Crawford 62 to 38 percent for a county civil judge seat on Staten Island.