Bad New York Democrats Might’ve Lost the Election

The New York Democratic Party’s leaders made horrible decisions that gave away seats to Republicans. We might have them to blame for right-wingers taking over the House of Representatives.

New York State governor, Kathy Hochul speaks in New York City on September 20, 2022. (John Lamparski / Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

While there are still some final ballot tabulations and official results left to be released, pundits generally agree that the “red wave” that forecasters predicted in this week’s midterms did not quite materialize. Republicans, despite favorable polling numbers and conditions, did not overwhelmingly lead voters to support Republicans. In many parts of the country, Democrats made gains and won voter ballot initiatives, even in red states.

One place that defied national trends, however, despite its Democratic trifecta and leftward shift in recent years, is the state of New York. Why did New York become more Republican in all geographic areas of the state during an exceptionally positive midterm election for the Democrats?

New York still has a Democratic governor, state assembly, and a state senate. Governor Kathy Hochul enjoyed enormous fundraising, incumbency, and a huge registered Democratic voter advantage over her opponent Lee Zeldin, but only eked out a 5 percent victory — one of the slimmest margins for a gubernatorial victor in years. And both the New York state assembly and senate have both lost seats to Republican challengers. Most importantly, New York’s congressional delegation has potentially lost four of its Democratic incumbent seats to Republican challengers and did not flip any seats from Republican to Democratic.

This red splash is largely a crisis manufactured by missteps and miscalculations taken by the New York State Democratic leadership — in large part because of their zealous attempts to destroy progressive challengers. Here are three ways Democrats became the victim of their own success at marginalizing leftist positions, unnecessarily harming their own power, and creating openings for the Right statewide in the process.

1. Democrats Let the Right Define the Public Safety Conversation

The most recent history that matters is the 2021 primary and general election season. The election of Mayor Eric Adams, a former New York Police Department officer and former Brooklyn borough president, marked a noteworthy shift in mainstream Democratic approaches to criminal justice reform since 2018.

With the election of a Democratic majority in the State Senate in 2018, New York passed comprehensive bail reform, a step away from penal, carceral solutions to public safety. The near victory of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)–endorsed district attorney (DA) candidate Tiffany Cabán in June 2019 and the successful elections of progressive DAs like Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn (and later, Alvin Bragg in Manhattan) suggested a growing consensus on moving away from the punitive policing policies left over from the “war on drugs” era that have helped spur mass incarceration.

But as fears of crime began to rise in 2021, ambitious politicians like Adams exploited these worries in his mayoral run, using his status as a former police officer to argue that he would solve New York City’s crime crisis. Democratic leadership, in New York State and beyond, refused to challenge Republican dismissal of Black Lives Matter protests and the movement demanding progressive criminal justice reforms, quickly aligning themselves as moderate, reasonable leaders in the fight for law and order. In doing so, they effectively accepted the right-wing frame on crime rather than pushing one of their own and closing a lane for Democrats to create an offensive rather than defensive political platform. This was a gift to the Right.

2. Kathy Hochul Created Significant Problems for Down-Ballot Candidates

Governor Kathy Hochul’s ascendancy to power, the result of Andrew Cuomo’s forced resignation in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, came in October 2021, a pivotal moment for New York State Democrats. India Walton, the DSA- and Working Families Party–endorsed Democratic nominee for Buffalo mayor, faced a challenge from the incumbent mayor, Byron Brown. Brown had chosen not to run again, but after Walton’s primary victory he launched a write-in campaign in the general, during which he used his considered campaign funds to attack Walton on criminal justice. (Walton promised to not fire a single police officer, but instead encourage retirements and pledged to reduce the budget by less than 10 percent, based on the recommendations by a policy study on ways to increase public safety beyond police funding.) The Brown campaign also painted Walton as unqualified, dangerous, and accused her of welfare fraud and drug-related allegations.

While polls showed his lead, young people did support Walton more than two to one. But the New York State Democratic Party apparatus did not support the Democratic nominee. Jay Jacobs, the state Democratic Party chair, refused to endorse Walton and compared her to David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan. Newly inaugurated Buffalo native Kathy Hochul similarity refused to endorse her in the race, calling it a “special situation.”

The lack of support for Walton, and success of Brown in drawing on big Republican donors to fund his victories, emboldened right-wing Democrats like Tom Suozzi to challenge Hochul from the Right in the 2021 primary.

This single race opened the door for Democrats to continue their “tough on crime” and “fear of crime” narrative that would come to dominate the 2022 general election. By perpetuating Republican fearmongering, New York Democrats created a wide lane for a Trump-supporting gubernatorial candidate, Lee Zeldin, appealing to a wide range of people’s insecurities on economics, health, and safety in the 2022 general election.

This combined with Hochul’s Third Way insistence on civility, technocracy, refusing to run a strong field campaign, largely ignoring young people and her downstate base, and focusing on the supposedly historic moment of shattering glass ceilings led to a tragicomic repeat of 2016 in which a “qualified,” long-serving woman (Hillary Clinton in 2016, Hochul in 2022) refused to make a compelling case for herself beyond highlighting the terrible qualities of her challenger.

Republican challenger Zeldin had enthusiasm and passion on his side. He did not defeat Hochul, but he has potentially created new communities of Republican supporters. This led to the perfect storm of a weak “coattails” effect, with Hochul unable to tip the scales from the top of the ticket in closely contested races. New York has historically been a strongly Democratic state in presidential and statewide races. The governor’s race didn’t have to go this way.

The failure of Hochul and Democratic leadership to promote a positive vision statewide with the Democrats’ failures in redistricting coupled to create the conditions that might cost Democrats control of the Congress.

3. The Democrats Completely Screwed Up the Redistricting Process

We’re getting in the weeds here, but stick with me. Cuomo had run for governor in 2010 on many issues, including reforming New York State’s overly partisan redistricting process. He allowed incumbents to redraw their own districts in 2012 following the 2010 census. Then in 2014, Cuomo introduced a successful constitutional amendment (approved by ballot referendum) that would create the New York Redistricting Commission, made up of a bipartisan coalition that would post census district maps to be considered by the state legislature.

The proposed commission was created with the expectation that the state legislature would remain divided between Republicans and Democrats — which Cuomo worked very hard to maintain during his first eight years in office through tactics like supporting the Independent Democratic Conference. As a result, Cuomo created a ten-person commission that would include five Democratic-leaning and five Republican-leaning representatives. But by 2022, Democrats had supermajorities in both legislative chambers, and when the Redistricting Commission found itself at a stalemate, presenting two separate maps, the state legislature with its Democratic supermajorities drew their own maps. The New York courts then ruled that these maps violated Cuomo’s 2014 constitutional amendment.

The first court rejection of the Democratic-drawn maps happened when a rural State Supreme Court judge ruled on March 31, 2022, that Democratic-designed maps consisted of blatant gerrymandering, as they gave Democrats the advantage in twenty-two out of twenty-six congressional districts. But the Supreme Court allowed the Democrats one last chance to draw fairer, bipartisan-supported maps by April 30. The New York State Democrats could have put forth fairer maps, but did not submit new maps by the deadline. Instead, Democrats hoped that the Court of Appeals would overturn the rural judge. Their gamble failed.

(It is also worth noting that the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court of the state, has a Republican and conservative majority — the result of Cuomo pushing through the confirmation of a tough-on-crime prosecutor, Madaline Singas, to fill a Court of Appeals vacancy in summer of 2021, a move which grassroots activists opposed, yet they were ignored. As you can see, Democrats repeatedly fumbled the bag.)

After the Court of Appeals decision, the special master, a court-appointed redistricting expert, then drew his own map, releasing it in May 2022. He created eight new competitive Congressional districts. But his maps were criticized for failing to protect minority and other communities of interest.

Advocacy and good governance groups predicted this likely redistricting problem prior to 2022. They put forth a 2021 ballot initiative that would have simplified the redistricting process. This ballot proposal, “Amending the Apportionment and Redistricting Process,” could have prevented the debacle of 2022 from happening. The overall effect of this referendum would have simplified the creation of new districts, reduced power for minority parties in the redistricting process, prevented stalemates in the Independent Redistricting Commission, and made it easier for the state legislature to approve maps.

But the state Democratic Party did nothing to promote this referendum, spending no money to encourage positive support. Hochul, likewise, did nothing to promote the ballot measure. The state Republican Party (along with a minor party, the Conservative Party) spent $3 million on a “Just Say No” campaign. In the end, Ballot Measure 1 was outspent ten to one and was defeated by about 8 percentage points.

Currently, state party chair Jacobs is whining in interviews about being unfairly thrown under the bus as one of the key parties to blame for this fiasco. But he deserves this ire, including from DSA electeds like Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, for his negligence, lack of political foresight, and continued leadership during a time of huge losses for the party.

We can see a clear pattern here with Democratic state leadership in New York. Rather than protect the role of Democratic nominees and Democratic winning coalitions, state leaders from State Committee Leader Jacobs to Governor Hochul have remained passive in the face of impassioned organizing from the Right. New York State’s “red splash” remains a national embarrassment of Democrats’ own making and will have devastating consequences nationally for years to come.