YORKTOWN HEIGHTS — Greg Ball is to the state Senate race what Carl Paladino is to the gubernatorial election.

Paladino has brought a new level of fireworks to the governor's race with his blunt rhetoric and ferocious anti-Albany message. His fellow Republicans rejected him at their convention, but Paladino fought his way on to the ballot, defeating party favorite Rick Lazio in the primary.

Ball, an assemblyman now running for the Hudson Valley's 40th Senate District, is another verbal bomb-thrower with a knack for making enemies.

He's been accused of groping an Albany barmaid, and once claimed he found a dead goat — possibly the work of Central American gangs, he said — outside his home in Carmel, Putnam County. Ball is the target of several critical websites such as the Ball Monitor and Truth About Ball.

And like Paladino, Ball beat the Republican's handpicked candidate in a primary.

Despite those odds, polls show Ball is running neck-and-neck with Democrat Mike Kaplowitz, a Westchester County legislator.

In normal times, Ball might have been written off as too outlandish and carrying too much baggage.

But this year, Republicans hope that Ball will be the beneficiary of a Paladino coattail effect that will draw out members of the right-leaning Tea Party movement — even if Paladino doesn't make it to the governor's mansion.

"I do think (Paladino) does help us get the Senate back," said longtime Binghamton Senator Tom Libous, who is overseeing the statewide campaigns.

Libous' task is clear: help the GOP retake the Senate majority — which they lost by two seats in 2008 — in time to have a hand in the redistricting that will take place following this year's Census. Without GOP control of the chamber, Republicans fear Democrats will redraw the state in a way that could hobble them for a generation.

The GOP's tactics are similarly straightforward: concentrate on a few swing districts where there is heavy Republican enrollment and/or perceived weakness among Democrats. The battlegrounds range from Long Island to the North Country. Libous believes the wind is at the party's back. There's no presidential race, so Democrats are unlikely to enjoy anything approaching 2008's big pro-Obama turnout.

Combine that with the enthusiasm of upstate Paladino and Tea Party supporters, and Libous believes they can pick up a few seats. "Upstate will help us take the Senate back," he said.

That's not an unrealistic hope, according to the polls. Paladino supporters and Tea Party adherents "are very enthusiastic about voting," said Lee Miringoff, Marist College poll director.

Poor Democratic turnout led to surprise GOP victories in last year's county races, in which Republican executives were elected in Westchester and Nassau counties, noted Democratic activist Bill Samuels. Party turnout was low for last month's primaries, as well.

"Will a repeat of 2009, with Democrats not coming out, have an effect?" Samuels asked.

There are plenty of variables, though, including questions about whether Paladino's angry-man act is getting old, and whether Cuomo will extend a last-minute helping hand to Senate Democrats.

Polls suggest the Paladino wave may have peaked. While a September Quinnipiac poll showed a close race, another survey last Thursday had Cuomo ahead by 18 points.

"I believe that Carl Paladino will ultimately hurt the Republican party. He'll hurt the top of the ticket; he'll hurt the bottom of the ticket," predicted Bronx Democratic Sen. Jeff Klein, who is leading conference's campaign effort.

"Cuomo appears to be moving up, and Paladino down," observed Quinnipiac spokesman Maurice Carroll.

Moreover, New York's deep blue complexion may mean that voters are insulated from any national move toward the GOP. "What you've got is a situation that is like a levee. A Republican tide everywhere appears to be blocked coming into New York," said Carroll.

In fact, Senate and Assembly Democratic leaders are urging their members to ask Republicans to disavow Paladino. Still unknown is the extent to which Cuomo, who is gaining in the polls, will help Senate Democrats.

Back in 2006, then-candidate Eliot Spitzer broke with tradition and actively worked with some senate candidates, earning points with fellow Democrats but angering Republicans — including then-Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who would become Spitzer's most dangerous nemesis.

Cuomo appears to be going back to the days when gubernatorial and legislative candidates moved in separate circles. Until recently, he has run as something of a lone wolf.

That makes sense given the tumult that Senate Democrats have experienced since taking the majority in 2008, with a coup, partisan gridlock and several scandals.

They also had the misfortune of taking power as the economy was cratering, allowing Republicans to blame them for budget cuts and tax hikes.

Cuomo's outsider strategy has caused some ripples. Senate Democratic Majority Conference Leader John Sampson, according to one source, complained to Cuomo last month about not getting help for his races during a meeting.

Other sources in the Democratic camp, though, insist that Cuomo is poised to help out in swing district. He appeared Saturday with freshman Sen. Brian Foley, who faces a tough race on Long Island.

But it remains to be seen how much time and money Cuomo will sink into the Senate fight.

One thing is for certain, though, aside from Paladino's avid if limited base, few voters are thrilled with the choices they have this year, and few have any illusions that they'll be voting for true outsiders.

That was apparent last week after the Ball-Kaplowitz debate, in which voters packed an aging playhouse in the middle of this Northern Westchester County town and alternately booed or applauded the candidates.

Rather than expressing support for one or the other, people sounded like they had to choose between the lesser of two evils.

"Greg didn't get much done," Yorktown resident Mike Dubovsky said, noting Ball's Assembly record of getting no sponsored bills passed.

"I'm leaning toward Ball," countered George Ondek of Peekskill, who noted that Kaplowitz helped govern a county with some of the nation's highest property taxes. "Our county budget has gone through the roof," he said.

Contact Rick Karlin at 454-5758 or e-mail him at rkarlin@timesunion.com.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Greg Ball is to the state Senate race what Carl Paladino is to the gubernatorial election."