07/16/2012 12:50 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2012

New York's Conservative Party Spells Trouble for Democratic Agenda

Test your civic skills: Name the winner of the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in New York.

The answer is Wendy E. Long. Missed it? Don't feel too worried. I've been trying this out on my friends, many of them true political junkies, and the results have been so bad I'm convinced the only person in New York City who could get it right is Wendy E. Long.

Long is a Manhattan lawyer. She now goes up against Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, in November. If she wins, it will be the biggest upset since ...

I can't think of anything that comes close. New York is a blue state, Gillibrand is a young (by Senate standards), attractive, super-hard-working incumbent with a pile of money. Long has -- as I've just demonstrated -- absolutely zero name recognition, little or no money, and a political philosophy that's far to the right of the average New York voter. Wendy Long winning the Senate race would not be like the Nets winning the NBA championship next year. It'd be more like the All Hallows High School basketball team winning the NBA championship.

But let me tell you why her winning the Republican nomination matters.

Long was the least-well-known person in the recent Senate primary. Her opponents were Rep. Bob Turner, who was the upset victor in the election to replace the disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner, and Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos. (I have to admit I'd never heard of Maragos before, but he did at least once get elected to something.)

But Long won, with nearly 51 percent of the vote. What's her secret? The Conservative Party. Long had the Conservative Party endorsement and that was enough to propel her to victory.

The turnout was abysmal. About 5 percent of the state's registered Republicans actually showed up at the polls. In an election like that, it's easy for a small but ardent group of voters to make the difference. The Conservatives have only about 140,000 party members of their own, but apparently the fellow travelers within Republican ranks were more than enough to swing an election with about 137,000 participants.

The Conservatives are one of the long-running third parties in New York, who take advantage of the peculiarities of a state law that allows them to win their own ballot lines by cross-endorsing the Republican or Democratic nominees. Generally, the Conservatives put the Republican nominee on their line. But if they get ticked off at someone, they can nominate their own candidate, draining votes from the GOP.

So, here comes the part where I finally explain why the Wendy Long victory means something important.

Currently, the Republicans' only center of power in New York is the state Senate, where they maintain a narrow majority. Like his father, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has found the Senate Republicans relatively easy to work with. But Conservative Party opposition can get in his way. For instance, they balked at his plan to tweak the state's marijuana laws with a modest change that would protect young people who are stopped and frisked by city police, then arrested for possession of small amounts of grass.

It would have been a big help to New York City, where tensions over the stop-and-frisk system are high. But the Republican senators were afraid of the Conservative Party.

And prepare to see them get much more frightened. The senators from strong Republican districts are afraid of being primaried by a Conservative favorite. (As we've just seen, this is a problem when turnout is low. That is practically the definition of a state Senate primary.)

The ones where the party division is closer are afraid of losing the Conservative line on the ballot, and being stuck running against a Conservative nominee who will drain away their votes.

Bottom line: a party with fewer than 150,000 actual members gets to call the shots on more and more issues. The state Senate moves to the right. And if the three Republicans who voted with Cuomo on the same-sex marriage law lose their nominations -- they're all facing primaries in September -- the Conservatives could make the next few years a positive nightmare. Budget crises with the Democratic Assembly. A return to the old social issues wars.

Not a good prospect. Remember Wendy Long.