ALBANY - In the continuing fight for control of New York's powerful state Senate, the only clear winner is Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
If Democrats hold on to Tuesday's tentative win of 31 seats (they also lead in two races too close to call), Cuomo could get a Democratic majority that's hungry for the progressive goals that he set but were blocked by the Republican majority over the past two years Cuomo has been in office.
Absentee ballots begin to be opened in two weeks. Democrats hope for a 33-30 majority then. The new session begins Jan. 1.
Republicans, who now have a 33-29 majority, hope for a gain of at least two seats when all absentee ballots are counted. That would create a 31-31 split, but Republicans are angling for as many as five Democrats to work with them in a GOP-dominated majority.
Republicans hope to continue an alliance with four breakaway Democrats of the Independent Democratic Conference and Democratic Sen.-elect Simcha Felder of Brooklyn who may sit with the GOP. If Republicans prevail, Cuomo will see business as usual, and he values that the deals he makes with highly disciplined Republicans stick. That's a questionable prospect with more fractious Democrats.
Cuomo passed critical fiscal goals - tight budgets, a cap on property tax growth, a cheaper public pension - by uniting with Republicans over the first half of his term. Now he has a chance to get his progressive goals with a Democratic Senate majority, including raising the minimum wage and public financing of campaigns. He could also reach those goals if the independent Democrats align with the Republican coalition, where they would gain a far stronger voice and could push Cuomo's agenda.
The diverse successes would be a dream resume for someone who might run for president in 2016.
Cuomo must pivot to strengthen any presidential hopes, said Michael Kink of the progressive Strong Economy for All coalition and a former top adviser to Senate Democrats.
"He said coming in that he wanted to be fiscally conservative for a while, but to also make New York a progressive beacon for the nation," King said. "Clearly, he won't benefit from more tax cuts for the rich and more austerity."
Cuomo sat out most of the Senate elections. He intervened most prominently to endorse Republican Sen. Stephen Saland, who cast the critical vote for Cuomo's bill to legalize gay marriage last year. That infuriated some Democrats, including candidate Terry Gipson, who leads Saland pending the counting of absentee ballots. Cuomo also allowed several Republicans to use his image and past plaudits in GOP campaigns.
Now, Cuomo may have to interact far more directly with senators.
As the popular leader of the state Democratic party, Cuomo may have to meld the disparate Senate Democrats into a working majority, if that's possible among rival senators.
Cuomo could also try to get the breakaway group, known as the Independent Democratic Conference, to sit out the vote for majority leader, which could allow Republicans to choose one of their own even if Democrats outnumber them. Senate Republican leaders have forged a close relationship with the IDC, which sat out the majority leader vote two years ago. Cuomo has also developed a close working relationship with the top Republicans, while mostly ignoring the Democratic leaders in the near powerless minority.
"Whoever wins. I work with whoever wins," Cuomo said Friday .
Neither option would be easy, or pretty.
Far uglier would be a repeat of recent history.
Democrats wrested the majority from Republicans in 2008 after a half-century of GOP domination. But the next two years were marked by historic power plays within the Democratic conference, a coup by Republicans and three dissident Democrats, and gridlock.
"The governor - on any level - can't afford to return to the dysfunction of the past," said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll. "So the question is: What role if any will the governor play?"
Cuomo's not saying.
"I have no intention of getting involved in their situation," he said last week as he managed the response to Superstorm Sandy.
"In the Senate, I think it's more complicated than before. ... Now it's a coalition" rather than party alliances, Cuomo said, referring to the role played by the IDC.
Progressive groups are optimistic for action on the public financing of campaigns, raising the minimum wage, more school aid, revising the property tax cap and more after two years of disappointment with Cuomo.
"We don't know what will happen in whatever kind of coalition, but we have strong support in the Democratic conference and strong support in the IDC," said Karen Scharff, executive director of one such group, Citizen Action.
Working Families Party Executive Director Dan Cantor said he's confident Democrats will unite.
"These are serious people and they know the stakes are very high," Cantor said.
Cuomo himself echoed that.
"No one is going back," the governor said, referring to the chaos of 2008-2010. "I think they learned the hard way. ... Democrats lost power because of dysfunction."