Like a roaring wall of water crashing on the shore and receding to the sea, the midterm elections are long past now. That sucking feeling around our New York State ankles is worth examining. What went right nationally has already been celebrated by both political parties. But the pattern of more-limited-than-expected Republican gains wasn’t the script in New York State. The GOP midterm tide may have been gentle in New York State, but it was enough to bring down the House.
What went wrong on Long Island and the Hudson Valley? The New York Democrats are now been blamed in some national circles for giving control of the U.S. House to the Republicans for the next two years.
Controlling the Excelsior State’s Senate since 2019, and dominating the state Assembly for decades, the Democratic donkey is now the state’s dominant political creature. The concentration of single-party power is immense. The last Republican governor, George Pataki, last held office in 2006, a long time ago.
New York provides 27 members of the United States House, and until election night just eight of them were elected Republicans. Now there are twelve.
Coming into the midterms, Republicans nationally were looking for just five seats to gain control of the lower house. That the Republicans could — and would — pick up two of those seats up along the Hudson River has impressed itself upon the identity of the Democrats like a branding iron.
Josh Riley was defeated by 6134 votes in the Nineteenth Congressional District, and Sean Patrick Maloney lost by 3200 votes in the Seventeenth. These margins are the stuff of lost sleep and nagging remonstration.
A botched redistricting effort magnified what many critics felt to be a miscalculation regarding the appropriate messaging to bring independent-minded and undecideds into the Democratic fold in New York, unlike what seems to have happened in most of the rest of the country. Recriminations and internecine warfare in the state Democratic Party have intensified.
An array of progressive Democratic elected officials, including incoming assemblymember Sarahana Shrestha, county legislators Phil Erner and Abe Uchitelle, and county vice-chair for fundraising Alexandra Wojcik, signed a letter on November 14 calling for governor Kathy Hochul to remove state Democratic chair Jay Jacobs’ head, metaphorically speaking.
Jacobs responded with a letter of his own indicating support from 40 county-level Democratic chairs. Ulster County chair Kelleigh McKenzie’s name was not among them. Nor were the names of the chairs from Columbia, Dutchess, Orange and Rockland counties.
Jacobs, who owns a summer camp in Greene County whose only road access is through the Town of Shandaken in Ulster County, was very close to ex-governor Andrew Cuomo, who chose him to chair the state party for a second time in 2019. For now, he retains the support of governor Kathy Hochul.
Long Island sees red
To begin to get a handle on the red shift creating all the anxiety among Democrats, let’s look at the new Third and Fourth Congressional Districts down in New York’s own mar-a-lago (‘lake to sea’ in Spanish) on that wide spit of land between the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Both the new districts were won by opportunistic Republicans after the two Democratic congressmembers from the old territories chose not to contest the new ones. Kathleen Rice retired. Tom Suozzi bet it all on a run for governor. Suozzi attacked Hochul, defining himself as “a common-sense Democrat who has the experience to get the job done as governor of New York.” He got twelve percent of the primary vote.
With four GOP members, the domination of Long Island outside New York City by Republican representatives is now total.
It is surmised that the reddening of Long Island due to redistricting was a foregone conclusion, and that the savvy Democratic incumbents got out early to save themselves a public drubbing in the polls.
It may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Nassau County that Long Island hasn’t always been red, but in any case what happens on Long Island stays on Long Island, or at least it has to get through Brooklyn or Queens first. Whatever does usually dissipates somewhere between the bridges and tunnels of New Jersey and Connecticut.
Albany bear trap
Hudson Valley Democrats bear no responsibility for the loss of the two Long Island seats. That can’t be said for the results of the races on the 17th and 19th Congressional Districts.
The defeat of party fixer par excellence and five-term congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was a spectacular example of political hubris. After the decennial redistricting carved up his district in the old 18th CD, Maloney decided he’d have a better shot at reelection by running for the seat held by fellow Democratic incumbent Mondaire Jones. He made the run. He lost.
Maloney stepped into a bear trap built in Albany. He didn’t get the boundaries for the district that he wanted.
Expertly tinkered with by then-governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014, when Democrats had not yet taken control of the state Senate, state law was changed to allow for the creation of an independent redistricting commission to draw the new lines when the appointed time came. Redistricting is done every ten years.
Desiring to avoid the appearance of gerrymandering, the manipulation of voter district boundaries to give one party advantage over the other, the ten-member commission was appointed by leaders of both the majority and minority parties in the legislature. The commission would get two attempts at presenting an acceptable redistricting map to the legislature. If it failed twice, the legislature would take over.
When 2022 finally arrived, the commission was unable to compromise amongst itself and presented two separate maps, each reflecting the party bias of the factions within the commission. Both were rejected by the state legislature.
The legislature went ahead and created its own preferred map for redistricting. The lines were drawn with such a heavy Democratic thumbprint placed in the ink that the map was immediately challenged in a Steuben County courthouse.
The gerrymander got laughed at by justice Patrick McAllister on its way to being rejected by the highest court in the state and returned to McAllister, a Republican. Given four days to produce one, the legislature had no backup map to offer. In retrospect, Democratic Senate majority leader Michael Gianaris made a serious mistake in expecting an appeals court to reinstate the original map the Democrats had drawn.
The new map proved a disaster for the New York Democrats.
McAllister appointed a special master to craft the new chessboard upon which the candidates would compete. Thirty-seven-year-old Jonathan Cervas of the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, who The New York Times noted was an ex-Las Vegas bartender, was chosen by McAllister to redraw the lines.
Incumbents and first-time candidates alike scrambled for political advantage. The June primaries having already been pushed back to August, just 90 days out from the general election, many voters were unsure who their candidates were. Candidates like Maloney and Riley found themselves having to introduce their brand to hundreds of thousands of new voters. Electorally, these races had become anyone’s game.
The big bucks pour in
All things being equal, the money began to pour in. Money from outside interests inundated the Hudson Valley races, dwarfing even the amounts raised by the candidates themselves.
The website Open Secrets projected that more than $16.7 billion was spent in all state and federal elections in these midterms. That number has been rising around two billion dollars with every new midterm cycle since 2016. This is the gift of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which in 2010 equated money with free speech. Those with the most money now have the loudest voices.
Up until Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, midterm elections had been relatively sleepy affairs, when the electorate was thought sluggish and it was typically difficult to gin up voter enthusiasm. No longer.
The Democrats spent $18.3 million for Riley’s and Maloney’s unsuccessful candidacies. The Republicans spent $14.9 million to defeat these two Democrats.
What messaging caused the Democrats to underperform and lose those four crucial congressional seats on the perimeter of the greater New York metropolitan area on November 8?
We know the numbers. There’s a boatload of undecided or disgruntled New York State voters that the Republicans connected with in 2022. The Republicans outperformed their 2020 numbers in most places in the state.
If Democrats want these votes, how will they better connect with these voters? After the warning shot of November 8, the Democrats must realize that a new strategy and a new outlook are essential.