Somewhere between the flat red wave and a surprisingly robust Democratic showing in Tuesday’s midterm elections, lies New York’s political reality. While the Democrats retained the state’s big offices (governor and state attorney general), they suffered a resounding defeat in the US House of Representatives when the Republicans flipped four blue seats to their side of the aisle. One of those high-profile seats belonged to Patrick Sean Maloney, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Many New York Democrats, especially the progressive wing, think the losses in their state will help Republicans gain control of the House.
It didn’t take long for harsh words and loud demands for resignations to erupt. A free-for-all broke out that pitted New York City Mayor Eric Adams against the progressives in his party, with Adams accusing the progressives of being soft on crime because of the criminal justice reforms that they pushed through the state legislature. Outspoken US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens in New York City, also waded into the internecine brawl. Cooler heads warned that if Democrats want to hold the White House in 2024, they had better make peace, especially in the absence of a viable candidate who could do better than Joe Biden. But long before the midterm elections, New York Democrats were already at war, but not against the Republicans. It was a civil war.
When late polling showed that the Republicans’ tough-on-crime message was resonating well with New Yorkers, the blue candidates sprinted toward the finish line to retain a firm grip on a traditionally Democratic bastion. Governor Kathy Hochul’s (D) unexpectedly narrow victory over challenger Lee Zeldin (R) confirmed that New York Democrats were losing ground to the Republicans. “We can’t stay on autopilot,” warned State Senator Andrew Gounardes about his party’s overconfidence. After conceding defeat, Maloney acknowledged that he and other local Democrats had underestimated their constituencies’ concern about crime.
Sean Patrick Maloney is one of the fabled New York Irish – a Democratic political clan that dominated the party for decades before it started admitting minorities, the same minorities who are now clamoring for new party leadership. As chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Maloney helped his party fend off the Republican onslaught in the House, but it cost him his own seat. Political analysts attribute the loss of four House seats in New York to electoral redistricting and the perception that Democrats are soft on crime. The redistricting process reconfigured electoral district boundaries and gave Republicans an opening in districts that traditionally went to the Democrats.
Hortensia says she’s a lifelong Democrat. As she waited in line to vote at a Manhattan school, Hortensia criticized her party for neglecting public safety. “We can’t have a revolving door that they [criminals] can enter and exit in a matter of hours,” she said, alluding to the controversial New York law that eliminates money bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, and ensures speedy trials within 24 hours of arrest. “Me and many of my neighbors and friends are worried, and the Republicans have a better feel for that,” said Hortensia.
Progressive Democrats blame the unabashedly Republican New York Post’s lurid covers of a city besieged by crime, and gaffe-prone Democrats like Mayor Eric Adams who ineffectively touted their own law-and-order credentials for giving the Republicans an edge in the midterm elections. They point to the Lauder cosmetics heir, a longtime Democrat, who donated $11 million to Lee Zeldin’s gubernatorial campaign, because he has to hire bodyguards to protect his family on the streets of New York. In fact, New York City is one of the safest big cities in the US, despite well-publicized incidents that are bound to happen in a population of eight million. Maloney was one of those who blamed the New York Post for sowing fear among voters.
Criminal justice reform has long been a political hot potato for Democrats. Advocates says it’s needed to provide better living conditions for inmates in over-crowded prisons, while Republicans says the current system is too lenient as it is. The same issue cost San Francisco Attorney General Chesa Boudin his job after a June recall vote, and in New York, it has become weaponized. But redistricting sleight-of-hand undoubtedly had a greater impact on the elections than Democratic infighting over crime.
Shortly before the New York primaries, a judge ruled that the 2014 electoral map engineered by the Democrats, led by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), violated the state constitution. The judge ordered a reconfiguration that upended the composition of many districts – some were merged, while others were expanded or reduced. The entire process was rushed through so that the districts would be set for the upcoming primaries, and ultimately resulted in a balanced electoral map that no longer guaranteed a Democratic majority. “The maps approved by the court are among the most competitive and politically balanced in the country,” stated the Brennan Center for Justice. “New York is one of the few states where redistricting increased rather than decreased competitiveness. But the impacts on some communities, especially in New York City, and the lack of time left many deeply dissatisfied.” Some of those communities are in the Hudson Valley, Long Island, and pockets of Brooklyn, where the four districts lost by Democrats are located.
Despite the defeat of admitted Trumpist Lee Zeldin, New York Republicans are floating on cloud nine. Not only did they contribute four seats to the anticipated Republican majority in the House, more than any other state, but they also won the jackpot and defeated Democratic Party factotum Sean Patrick Maloney, the man in charge of maintaining his party’s majority in Congress. And they sparked even more bitter infighting among Democrats on the road to the 2024 elections.
“It was a terrible night in New York,” said Howard Wolfson, a leading national Democratic strategist, summing up his party’s disappointment in 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.”