Democrats could lose control of the House of Representatives because of Republican wins in an unlikely place — deep-blue New York state.
Democrats lost key races there on Tuesday, despite holding on to the governor’s mansion with incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul’s victory over GOP challenger Lee Zeldin. Nationally, the Democrats managed to stave off a red wave, but New York state, often perceived as reliably blue, saw a mini red wave of its own — one that could have national consequences.
There are several explanations as to why Democrats underperformed in New York; newly configured congressional districts likely play a significant part. Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won reelection in New York’s 14th District encompassing parts of the Bronx and Queens, placed the blame on former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Democratic Party machine. In an interview with the Intercept, Ocasio-Cortez described the state party as stultified and sycophantic, unwilling to invest in grassroots organizing and dismissive of progressive leaders.
Some of Democrats’ struggles in New York also likely stem from an issue that was especially salient during the campaign: crime. According to both Republicans and Democrats, law and order messaging resonated with voters, particularly in places like Long Island, as Politico reported Wednesday. And in a gubernatorial race that should have been clear-cut and an easy win for Hochul, she ended up winning with a slighter margin than expected, indicating that Zeldin’s tough-on-crime campaign spoke to voters’ fears and concerns.
In the waning weeks of the campaign Hochul switched tactics to focus on her administration’s wins on crime, in addition to Zeldin’s far-right stance on abortion and his Trump loyalty. Hochul touted lowering shooting and homicide rates in New York, as well as passing gun reform legislation earlier this year.
Violent crime has indeed risen in New York, specifically in New York City; according to the New York Police Department’s crime statistics from the week of October 31 through November 6, the year-to-date murder rate has dropped 14.4 percent from that time in 2021, although rapes and assaults had increased over the same time period, by 10.9 percent and 13.9 percent respectively. Hate crimes have also risen dramatically, by 124.3 percent over the past two years.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams proved to be a thorn in Hochul’s side; his consistent messaging on New York City crime rates, stretching back to his own campaign, helped lay the groundwork for Zeldin’s own attacks.
Changing voter blocs may have also affected the race; Asian communities in particular, which had already turned out for Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa in 2021, came out for Republicans during the midterms. In south Brooklyn, home to Asian communities like Sunset Park, Republican appear poised to unseat incumbent Democrats in three different state legislature races, according to New York Focus, reflecting a political shift that Democrats have to wrestle with.
Hochul’s focus on abortion rights and Zeldin’s anti-abortion record may not have resonated in a state that codified the right to abortion before Roe v. Wade was even decided. That tactic — focusing on abortion rights — worked for Democrats in places like Michigan and Kentucky, where the threat to abortion rights was tangible.
Combined, all these factors led to a surprisingly tepid result for New York Democrats amid an otherwise strong night for Democrats. And while the GOP’s overperformance in a state that Joe Biden won by 23 points in 2020 is newsworthy in itself, the repercussions may well be felt nationally if the Democrats fall just short of winning the House — and if the loss of winnable seats in New York turns out to be the difference.
The potency of crime as a midterm issue
Hochul won her first outright election to the governorship on Tuesday, and is the first woman ever elected to New York’s highest office. She served as former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, taking over in 2021 when he stepped down due to allegations of workplace and sexual harassment.
Zeldin, a member of Congress representing New York’s First Congressional District, mounted a surprisingly effective campaign against Hochul. He was a longtime supporter of former President Donald Trump — a deeply unpopular figure in New York. His election denialism and stance on social issues like abortion were certainly out of step with the state’s voters. Yet his strategy — focusing on crime rates and blaming changes in New York’s cash bail policy — got him within 6 percentage points of Hochul.
It’s worth remembering that much of New York outside of the large population centers — New York City, Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse — is fairly conservative. Zeldin’s aggressive, ominous messaging on crime blamed the surge on the state’s cash bail reform, which was passed before Hochul took office. That policy, which eliminated cash bail for low-level offenders, became a centerpiece in the campaign; Zeldin and other Republicans across the country blamed rising crime rates on bail reform policies, although there’s insufficient evidence to support that conclusion.
“Bail reform and crime became synonymous in the minds of many voters, and someone has to pay the price for it,” Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant, told New York magazine. “Kathy Hochul gets the blame because the legislature is unassailable.”
The bail reform legislation was unpopular with more conservative, suburban Democrats, as well as with New York City Mayor Eric Adams. That put Hochul in a tough position: side with conservative Democrats and roll back the legislation, or go with progressives in New York City who could turn out the votes she depended on?
According to a mid-October poll by Quinnipiac University, likely voters in New York said crime was the most serious issue facing the state, with inflation in second place. Among Democrats, crime was the second most important issue behind protecting democracy.
Hochul didn’t campaign aggressively until the last weeks of the race, which could have put her in a more vulnerable position. And until Zeldin’s late-in-the-game challenge, Hochul didn’t spend much time in the Democratic stronghold of New York City, where she would have to mobilize voters — and in particular, Black and brown communities — to go to the polls.
Republicans managed to flip congressional seats, which will have national implications
Redistricting also likely played an important role in the Democrats’ weak showing.
Congressional maps are redrawn every 10 years, following the US Census, to reflect changes in population over the previous decade. New York’s redistricting has been messier than usual; in 2014, then-Gov. Cuomo passed a law changing the redistricting process and allowing a nominally bipartisan body to redraw the map.
However, most members of that body are directly appointed by the legislature, which also has the authority to approve or reject the map. If the legislature rejects two maps in a row, it can then make its own redistricting plan, as Michael Li, senior counsel for the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, explained in a blog post.
Democrats have held a supermajority in the Senate and the Assembly since 2021, so they could gerrymander the congressional district map after the independent commission failed to reach consensus on a new set of congressional and state legislative district maps. The Democratic supermajority then drew the congressional map in their favor, which Li called “a master class in how to draw an effective gerrymander” in a New York Times interview this past February. That map created 22 safe Democratic seats out of 26 House seats.
Republican members of the legislature sued in March, sending the redistricting fiasco to the courts, where Judge Patrick McAllister rejected the Democrats’ maps. Democrats in the legislature then had a chance to amend the maps — but they didn’t take it, instead kicking the issue back to McAllister and the Court of Appeals, which had McAllister appoint a special master to draw new maps.
The new maps eliminated one congressional district, made others more competitive than they’d been in years, and pitted Democratic representatives against each other. According to the court, the resulting map was “neutral,” carving out 15 likely Democratic seats, three Republican ones, and eight that were deemed competitive.
Tuesday’s midterms saw the results: The new congressional maps helped Republicans flip four seats. The most stunning upset was the defeat of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — which is tasked with helping elect Democrats to the House — by Republican State Assembly member Michael Lawler to win a seat representing the New York City suburbs and parts of the Hudson Valley. Lawler had presented a more moderate Republican stance on issues like abortion and clearly rejected 2020 election denialism.
Maloney, a five-term incumbent, chose to run in New York’s 17th Congressional District, as opposed to the 18th District he currently represents. Not only did he lose on Tuesday, but in the primary he displaced the 17th District’s Rep. Mondaire Jones, who lost his bid in the 10th District; now both Maloney and Jones will be out of office come January, and NY-17 is in Republican hands.
And Republicans were poised to pick up another seat in central New York, with Trump-aligned Republican candidate Brandon Williams leading moderate Democrat Francis Conole by about 3,900 votes as of Friday.
The New York Democratic Party is run by Jay Jacobs, a Cuomo stalwart who supported the former governor during his sexual harassment scandal, Politico reported Friday. Progressives like Ocasio-Cortez say that Jacobs and the state party failed to push for a more favorable redistricting map earlier this year and failed to support candidates in local races. Ocasio-Cortez has repeatedly called for his resignation, charging that the state party under Cuomo became a tool to support the governor, not the interests of the state.
Republicans also won New York’s 19th District seat, with Marc Molinaro defeating Democratic attorney Josh Riley. Molinaro actually lost a special election in that district earlier this year, when Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado left his seat to become Hochul’s lieutenant governor.
Though 28 congressional races throughout the country remain too close to call as of Friday afternoon, Republicans are currently beating Democrats in the race to control the House. (The Senate race is closer, with Democrats having a decent shot of keeping the Senate, and races still undecided in Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia.)
Even on a state level, the Democratic supermajority is in question, and Hochul’s razor-thin win should be a wake-up call to Democrats in New York.
“It was a terrible night in New York,” said Howard Wolfson, a leading national Democratic strategist, told the New York Times. “It’s infuriating that a night as good as it was for Democrats overall is undone by arrogance and incompetence here.”