A pair of races in New York could have national resonance as Republicans seek to use the migrant crisis as a political cudgel against Democrats.
The county executive’s message was unequivocal: Erie County had an obligation to open its arms to the crush of migrants overwhelming New York City about 300 miles away. He called those who refused to help “morally repugnant.”
That was May. By August, two asylum seekers sheltered in the area had been arrested on sexual assault charges. And after Republicans blamed the county executive, Mark Poloncarz, a Democrat, he abruptly put a migrant relocation program on ice.
The episode has been played on repeat this fall in attack ads blanketing the airwaves in Erie County as Republicans try to turn the migrant crisis gripping the state into a political cudgel to flip perhaps the most important elected office in western New York.
Clear across the state, on the tip of Long Island, a similar dynamic is playing out in Suffolk County, where Republicans are favored to win back the top office for the first time in two decades. Part of their strategy: attack ads focused on the busloads of migrants arriving in New York City, miles away from the suburbs.
Typically sleepy races, the two off-year contests for county executive have been transformed into important bellwethers for 2024, when six competitive House races are expected to help determine control of the House of Representatives.
Both parties are closely watching Tuesday’s results. Will voters, particularly in suburban swing areas, stick with Democrats, whose party has labored — sometimes rancorously — to shelter and care for 130,000 asylum seekers? Or will they jettison the party in favor of Republicans offering more hard-line proposals?
“These races can show us whether the bottom has fallen out for Democrats, or we’re returning to the tight races that you would expect in these swing counties,” said Matthew Rey, a Democratic strategist.
Democrats still dominate New York, statewide, by most measures. But Republicans performed better than expected in 2021, harnessing concerns about rising prices and an uptick in crime to flip a handful of congressional swing seats a year later. To have any real shot at a House majority, Democrats need to win them back.
Recent polling by the Siena College Research Institute found that 84 percent of registered New York voters view the influx of migrants as a serious problem. Among suburban voters, majorities also disapproved of the way Mayor Eric Adams, Gov. Kathy Hochul and President Biden — all Democrats — have handled the issue.
In Erie County, Chrissy Casilio, the Republican nominee for county executive, has hammered Mr. Poloncarz on the issue, running ominous television ads featuring the mug shots of the two migrants who were accused of sexual assault.
Mr. Poloncarz, 55, who is looking to secure a record fourth term as county executive, had said that the migrants sent to Erie County would be vetted by the federal government, but paused the program following the arrests to resolve “security issues.”
“He brought the crisis here to Erie County,” Ms. Casilio, 37, a public relations professional, charged in an interview. “The bottom line with this is that, again, we were lied to. We were told they were vetted. They were not vetted.”
Mr. Poloncarz accused Republicans of race-baiting and overblowing the impact of the migrant issue. The roughly 500 migrants whom New York City is still paying to shelter in Erie County, he said, have had a negligible impact on a county with more than 950,000 residents.
“Most people in Erie County will have never come in contact with a migrant, with an asylum seeker,” he said in an interview, adding that Ms. Casilio was using the issue “to scare people.”
Erie County, home to Buffalo and its suburbs, usually leans Democratic. But the county executive race has frequently devolved into a tit-for-tat of accusations that could complicate Mr. Poloncarz’s re-election.
Ms. Casilio has highlighted accusations by a former girlfriend that Mr. Poloncarz physically restrained her during a domestic dispute. He denied the allegation, saying that it was “a highly emotional breakup” but that he did not grab the woman.
He came under fire again when the county comptroller received a complaint that accused him of steering public money to the nonprofit of a different woman he was dating. He has said the money allocation did not violate any ethics rules.
Mr. Poloncarz, who has significantly outspent Ms. Casilio, has criticized her lack of political experience. He set up a website devoted to since-deleted posts she made on social media in which she amplified conspiracy theories about the origins of Covid-19 and questioned whether the cardiac arrest of the Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin was a publicity stunt.
The Buffalo News editorial board called her “frankly, wacky.”
At an early voting site in Amherst, a Democratic-leaning suburb, a handful of voters said on Friday that they had voted for Mr. Poloncarz because of his management during difficult emergencies, including the pandemic and a blizzard that killed 31 people last year. The office of county executive is responsible for leveling taxes, maintaining infrastructure and providing other essential — and often apolitical — services to residents.
Garrett Hodgson, 48, a Democrat, said the migrant crisis was “not something that’s in Poloncarz’s control.” Sharon Carlo, 78, a former Republican who recently registered as a political independent, said the Republican ads focusing on the accusations against Mr. Poloncarz were “none of our business.”
In Suffolk County, an area more populous than 11 states, Democrats say they see signs that the Republican fever-pitch of 2021 and 2022 has cooled, particularly around crime. But strategists in both parties said Republicans were still well positioned to reclaim the county executive seat, putting them on the brink of a remarkable takeover of almost every major office on Long Island.
“Each cycle builds into the next,” said Jesse Garcia, the architect of Republicans’ multiyear strategy to hit Democrats, who control Albany and New York City, over the state’s bail law, rising prices and, increasingly, their handling of the migrant influx.
Edward P. Romaine, 76, the longtime Republican supervisor of Brookhaven, the county’s largest town, is running for county executive against Dave Calone, a Democrat and former prosecutor and businessman who has never held elected office.
Mr. Calone, 50, has modeled himself on the popular outgoing Democratic executive, Steve Bellone, sharply breaking with his party on public safety, housing and immigration. He has attacked Mr. Romaine as a self-interested career politician.
He opposes making Suffolk a sanctuary county for undocumented immigrants, a designation other leaders in his party raced to claim in recent years by limiting their cooperation with federal immigration authorities. He said he would join Republicans to block any effort to relocate migrants from New York City. And he has sided with Republicans calling on Ms. Hochul to toughen the state’s bail laws again.
“Look, there’s a misconception that Democrats don’t care about crime,” he said in an interview, adding that “the dynamics of my race help me reset the Democratic narrative.”
But he lost two key endorsements his predecessors enjoyed: the county police union and Long Island’s main newspaper, Newsday. And there are signs voters may not be in a mood to look beyond party labels.
Camille Considine, 75, a Republican who lives in the hamlet of Flanders, said on Friday that she voted for Mr. Romaine in part because of frustration over the migrant situation.
“Biden is allowing too many in,” she said. “And the way they’re housing them? It’s terrible.”
Jesse McKinley, Lauren D’Avolio, and Christine Sampson contributed reporting.