Missteps by New York Democrats loom large in battle for control of Congress, experts say

When the New York state Legislature drew a congressional map in January that reapportioned the state’s congressional seats, Democrats rejoiced because they believed the move would allow them to add three new seats to their party’s ranks in the U.S. House of Representatives.

While Republicans held just eight of New York’s 27 congressional seats, Democrats thought that by redrawing and packing some of them with Democrats, they would make those districts more competitive, building on their razor-thin majority in Washington.

But after state courts threw out the map in April for running afoul of the state constitution, new lines drawn by a court-appointed special master increased the number of safe Republican seats from four to six and the number of competitive districts went from two to at least four. Now — despite the Democratic Party’s more than 2-to-1 voter registration advantage in the Empire State — Democrats are expected to lose at least one of its congressional seats and possibly several more.

The national political environment has also turned more favorable for Republicans, putting New York races that aren’t usually competitive within the GOP’s reach. The governor’s race, once expected to be a landslide for Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, has seen her lead in polls shrink to just 6 points in a poll released Friday morning by Slingshot Strategies. Perhaps even more worrisome for Democrats, the poll shows an enthusiasm gap, with Rep. Lee Zeldin actually leading among voters who are certain to vote, as well as among independents. Republican candidates, such as Hochul’s opponent Zeldin, are making headway behind messaging that blames Democrats for inflation and crime, which Slingshot found are New York voters’ top two issues of concern.

Lee Zeldin and Kathy Hochul
Republican candidate for New York governor Lee Zeldin, left, debates Gov. Kathy Hochul, on Oct. 25. (Mary Altaffer/Pool via AP)

“Most of the polling seems to show Republicans are doing better among independents than they have in prior years,” Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, told Yahoo News. Even though New York has the 10th-lowest crime rate among the states, it has not been immune from a nationwide increase in murder since 2019, and the salience of crime has been growing since at least last year, when Democrats got roundly defeated in local elections in Long Island’s suburban Nassau County.

“Last year, the Democrats — including some fairly well-known, entrenched incumbents — got blown out of office, mostly on the law-and-order issue,” Levy said. “That issue is resonating just as strongly, maybe more so, in this year’s election.”

But the main reason for the Democrats’ disappointment in New York congressional races is partially of their own making. For a half century, Republicans controlled the New York state Senate, Democrats controlled the state Assembly, and a relatively stable arrangement governed redistricting in which lines would be drawn primarily to protect incumbents. That helped the GOP narrowly retain control of the upper chamber in an increasingly Democratic state, while Democrats grew a massive majority in the Assembly and incumbents of both parties in Congress were protected when possible.

In 2014, state legislators in both parties and then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo supported a state ballot referendum that approved an amendment to the state constitution creating a bipartisan commission to draw legislative maps, but leaving the legislature able to overrule the commission by voting down its maps. With Democrats having won control of the state Senate in 2018, when a backlash to then-President Donald Trump powered an electoral wave, Republican members of the commission refused to agree to any maps so that the Legislature would have nothing to vote down.

Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2021. (Hans Pennink/Pool via AP)

The Legislature stepped in and drew districts that were favorable to Democrats, but then the GOP successfully challenged the congressional maps in court and the resulting maps have been a disaster for Democrats. Without incumbent protection, some members of Congress changed districts or competed against one another in the primaries. House Oversight Committee Chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney and freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones both went down in the primaries after being forced to run against fellow Democrats. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney changed districts, and is now also at risk of losing. Even though his new Hudson Valley district went for Biden by 10 points, Maloney narrowly trails Republican state Assembly Member Michael Lawler in the polls and the race has been moved from “lean Democrat” to “toss up” by the Cook Political Report.

Congressional incumbents win more than 90% of the time, on average, and now fewer Democrats enjoy the fundraising and name-recognition advantages of incumbency. (Democrats are still favored by forecasters to win in several of the competitive races for open seats, including NY-18 and NY-19, the two districts immediately north of Maloney’s.)

Several Republicans who Democrats had targeted for a challenge are now probably safe. Take Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a freshman Republican who beat then-Rep. Max Rose, a moderate Democrat, in 2020, as her district went for Trump by 10 points. Malliotakis hails from Staten Island, New York City’s least populous, whitest and most conservative borough. Just across the Verrazzano Bridge, sits Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and from there the Staten Island-based seat would have gone north, into mostly Latino and Asian American Sunset Park and super-liberal Park Slope. The district in that map went for Biden by about 10 points, which drew Rose into the race for his old seat. But now he is competing in a Republican-leaning district that, under the court-drawn map, goes east into more conservative southern Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Dyker Heights.

Max Rose
Max Rose, a Democrat who served in Congress between 2019 and 2021, faces an uphill battle to win his seat back from Rep. Nicole Malliotakis. (Julia Nikhinson/AP)

Similar dynamics have played out across the state. On Long Island, the parties currently each hold two seats. Under the map tossed out by the courts, Democrats would have consolidated Republican voters more into one of the GOP-leaning seats, making the others more winnable for Democrats. But thanks to the successful Republican legal challenge, the new map remains much like the one that has been in place for the last decade, with four potentially competitive seats — two leaning Democratic and two leaning Republican ones.

But redistricting aside, Republican candidates appear to be gaining ground statewide. Experts say that may be due to the ebb and flow of midterm elections, in which the party that is out of power is more motivated to vote. That rebound effect might be especially noticeable in a blue state like New York, where the Trump-driven Democratic gains were greatest in 2018 and 2020.

“What makes this a difficult political environment [for Democrats], statewide and in these competitive individual House races, is that nothing has been better for the Democratic Party in New York than Donald Trump,” said Luke Perry, a professor of political science at Utica University in Utica, N.Y. “Over the last four years, when Trump was in office, Democrats maxed out their political power [in New York]. They won supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, they did very well in 2018 in House races, during President Trump’s first midterm.”

As Tuesday's debate between Zeldin and Hochul demonstrated, New York Democrats are trying to recreate the good showing of those recent campaigns by tying their opponents to Trump. “Trump’s been out of office for two years and you see in these House races an effort to try to connect Republican candidates to Trump and it’s not having the same effect because Donald Trump is not in office,” Perry said.

For example, in Central New York’s 22nd Congressional District, Biden won by more than 7 percentage points in 2020, but Republican congressional nominee Brandon Williams is leading Democrat Francis Conole by 5 points in the latest Siena College poll.

Lee Zeldin, left, and Rudolph Giuliani
Lee Zeldin, left, and Rudolph Giuliani at the annual Columbus Day Parade in New York City. (Star Max/IPx via AP)

Republicans seem to be making inroads with their crime-focused pitches. What’s curious about that is the fact that New York is among the safest states in the country and New York City among the safest cities, with a crime rate near historic lows. Certain categories of crime, including murder, increased in 2020 and 2021 throughout the country. That trend began during Trump’s term and has actually been more pronounced in Republican-governed states than Democratic ones overall.

But the crime rate’s direction since the start of the pandemic — and disproportionate media coverage — may be shaping voters’ perceptions more than the rate itself, according to Perry and Levy. Democrats may also be especially vulnerable on this issue in New York because Democrats used their new unified control in Albany to enact criminal justice reforms in 2019 that Republican elected officials and conservative media outlets like the New York Post portray as having caused the spike in crime. Analyses from nonpartisan research organizations like the New York City-based Brennan Center for Justice have found that the New York law change most often blamed for rising crime — a reduction in the bail requirements for some offenses — has not actually had any measurable impact on crime. But the chronology — first Democrats softened criminal justice laws, then crime went up — may inescapably lead many to conclude there has been a cause-and-effect relationship.

And outrage over that may power Republicans to a surprisingly strong showing in one of the most Democratic states in the country. “In terms of winning elections, turnout is pivotal, and the side that has more enthusiasm — particularly in midterm elections — is typically the side that wins,” Perry said.

With a different map, Democrats’ losing a few percentage points to Republicans might not have translated into losing a few House seats, but some observers say the party has itself to blame for its current predicament.

“There’s two reasons the congressional map got overturned: that they didn’t follow the process, which was a procedural mistake, and frankly, malpractice,” Rich Azzopardi, a longtime adviser to Cuomo who runs the public relations firm Bulldog Strategies, told Yahoo News. “And the other reason is that they violated the contents of the constitutional amendment that called for fair lines.”

Cover thumbnail photo: Cheriss May/Getty Images