The Republican party’s predicted “red wave” failed to materialise in the US midterm elections — except in one unlikely place: deep blue New York.
While they posted lacklustre results elsewhere, Republicans managed to flip four Democratic Congressional seats in New York state, an accomplishment that should allow them to take control of the House of Representatives.
In a particularly ignominious defeat for the Democrats, Sean Patrick Maloney, the five-term Congressman who chaired his party’s election committee, lost his own seat in a district north of New York City to Republican state assemblyman Mike Lawler.
The Democratic debacle has prompted disbelief among party faithful that New York state, a heartland where they outnumber registered Republicans two to one, was the place where they ended up being so vulnerable.
It has also sparked an ill-tempered round of finger-pointing, with hundreds of Democratic officials signing a letter this week demanding the resignation of state party chair Jay Jacobs. “The writing is on the wall and has been for some time: Jay Jacobs is not fit to serve as chair of the state Democratic party,” the letter stated.
But there are plenty of other culprits, including a bungled redistricting effort and the underwhelming campaign run by incumbent governor Kathy Hochul.
“Firing Jay Jacobs is like firing the coach instead of the players who lost the game,” said Ken Frydman, chief executive of Source Communications and a one-time communications director for former mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Frydman faulted Hochul and Maloney for underestimating their opponents.
One issue has been particularly salient in the post mortem of the Democrats’ stumble in New York: “Crime,” said veteran Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “Fear of New York City spilling into the suburbs.”
According to a Quinnipiac University poll in late October, crime was the top issue for New York voters, with respondents placing it well ahead of inflation and protecting democracy. Abortion rights may have been less of a factor in New York than elsewhere because they are enshrined in the state’s constitution.
Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate for governor, made public safety the central focus of an unexpectedly robust campaign. He ended up losing by 5.8 percentage points to Hochul, who was thrust into the governor’s mansion late last year only after her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, resigned in a cloud of scandal.
It was the strongest performance by a Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York since 2002 — and even more surprising, considering that Zeldin is pro-life and an ardent supporter of former president Donald Trump.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Bronx representative who is a star of Democrats’ progressive wing, blamed Cuomo, saying the party was still wedded to a campaign machine constructed by the former three-term governor that favoured lobbyists and big donors over the grassroots.
“Cuomo may be gone, but his entire infrastructure, much of his infrastructure and much of the political machinery that he put in place is still there. And this is a machinery that is disorganised, it is sycophantic,” she told The Intercept.
“If Democrats do not hang on to the House, I think that responsibility falls squarely in New York state,” she added.
Yet to other observers, the seeds for the Democrats’ midterm failure in the region were sown months ago, when the party used its dominance of the state Senate to embark on an ill-fated plan to redraw New York’s electoral districts in their favour. The map they presented was so skewed that the courts rejected it, and appointed a special master to draw a new one that resulted in more competitive districts.
Among those affected was Maloney, who had to run in a new, redrawn district north of New York City that includes the Hudson Valley — a semi-rural area that has increasingly attracted wealthy residents from the city. Democrats lost another seat nearby, as well as two on suburban Long Island, Zeldin’s home.
“The Senate screwed it up,” said one former Cuomo aide. “Every Democrat in a statewide race won decisively. Decisively. It’s the ones who ended up in these re-cut districts who lost.”
In their own analysis, Republicans such as Anthony D’Esposito, a former police detective who claimed a seat on Long Island that Joe Biden carried by 12 percentage points two years ago, saw their success less as a result of Democratic fumbles than their own disciplined campaign that focused relentlessly on crime and inflation.
“We stuck to the issues that mattered to the people in our districts,” he said after his triumph.
Still, some Republicans such as Chapin Fay, a former Zeldin campaign manager, remained clear-eyed about the challenges of re-establishing their party in the traditionally blue Empire state.
“Democrats need to regroup,” Fay said, “but [their] voter enrolment advantage is so problematic for Republicans, if we do not start building relationships in [New York City] and with non-Republicans across the state, we will continue to lose statewide.”