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Explaining New York’s Red Wave
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Explaining New York’s Red Wave

Can Republicans build on the pickups they made in the Empire State?

Staten Island Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis celebrates her re-election on November 8. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images.)

Last spring, liberals in New York were giddy: Democrats running the state legislature jumped at the chance to redraw the state’s congressional map in the party’s favor and deliver big midterm gains.

But they ran into a big problem: Their overtly partisan map turned out to be an overly ambitious bet. In April, a judge threw it out and, seven months later, New York congressional Democrats experienced one of their worst midterm performances in years. Republicans flipped  four seats total and will control 10 of the Empire State’s now 26 seats.

Republicans cite a number of factors for New York’s immunity from the GOP’s otherwise lackluster midterm performance this cycle. “Crime was off the hook and I think people are truly afraid of the crime issue,” said retiring Rep. John Katko of New York, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump last year. He also credited Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, who “ran a really good campaign and highlighted a lot of those issues, and I think that was a determining factor.”

Zeldin hit Gov. Kathy Hochul on crime throughout the cycle, stumping on the state legislature’s decision in 2019 to eliminate cash bail for misdemeanors and some nonviolent felonies. But the stump speech turned into a survivor story this summer when a man who attacked Zeldin during a campaign stop in Rochester was released from prison just hours after he was arrested. And during an October debate, Hochul equated Zeldin’s concerns about crime with wanting to lock up as many criminals as possible. “I don’t know why that’s so important to you,” Hochul said.

Republicans’ hoped-for upset never materialized, but Zeldin’s 6-point loss to Hochul marked the strongest Republican gubernatorial performance in two decades. And Republicans like Katko credit Zeldin for pushing other GOP candidates across the finish line.

Republican messaging on crime resonated especially in the Long Island suburbs. The New York GOP netted two open seats currently held by retiring Democrats. And victories from GOP Rep. Andrew Garbarino and Republican Nick LaLota—who will succeed Zeldin in representing that district—mean that Long Island will be under complete Republican congressional control come January. 

The real cherry on top for the New York GOP was in the Hudson Valley: Marc Molinaro won an open seat encompassing the Finger Lakes, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman and five-term Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney lost to local Assemblyman Mike Lawler. 

Maloney’s ouster follows an awkward primary scuffle with freshman Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones.

“He thought that by bullying his way into the neighboring district—which was a couple of points bluer—that he could save himself from having a real race,” one GOP operative told The Dispatch of Maloney. “But what ended up actually happening is that he gave up the power of incumbency to run for an open seat that frankly wasn’t even that much bluer.”

Democrats’ postmortem is now underway. “It began with a failed redistricting process that left Democrats a map that was far harder than it needed to be,” said Howard Wolfson, a Democratic political consultant who served as communications director for Hillary Clinton during her 2008 presidential run. “And it ended with Democrats failing to respond to voters’ concerns around crime and disorder that were repeatedly and clearly and explicitly expressed—time and time again.”

But those more moderately drawn congressional districts do offer Democrats some hope in 2024. “You have lots of Republicans who are very vulnerable in a presidential year,” Wolfson said. “My hope is that there will be a course correction in Albany to address voter concerns around crime and disorder.”

One of those soon-to-be-vulnerable members is Congressman-elect Anthony D’Esposito, a local councilman, retired police detective, and former fire department chief who won a Long Island district that hasn’t elected a Republican since 1996. President Joe Biden carried the district by nearly 14 points in 2020.

He knows he’ll likely have to buck the Republican Party line to stay in office beyond a single term. “You’re not going to represent a district like this without being a moderate,” D’Esposito said in an interview in the U.S. Capitol Wednesday. “If you govern too far to the right or too far to the left, you’re not going to be in this job very long.”

Another is George Santos, who says he’s “not a career politician” and doesn’t “intend to be one.” But he won his Democratic-leaning Long Island district by 8 points without any help from outside groups like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s leadership super PAC. 

And like every other Long Island congressman-elect, Santos thinks crime was a huge factor in his race. “If you see what the difference between the two coasts and the rest of the country is—we have very different issues,” Santos said. “The reality is that crime is a problem.”

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.