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How Bad Is It for New York Democrats?
Swimming through the red wave
For Kathy Hochul and New York Democrats, the gubernatorial race has grown uncomfortably close. The national environment for the Democratic Party is foreboding, as it would be in any midterm year for the party in power. Democrats were punished in 2010 and 2014, and Republicans endured the anti-Trump wave of 2018. As much as pundits want to breathlessly dissect the electorate every two years, some explanations are simple enough. American politics has grown distressingly cyclical and this has been true for decades. Joe Biden’s Democratic Party wasn’t about to alter things in such a dramatic way. And national trends filter down to New York.
Other factors, of course, work against the Democrats. Inflation is high. Crime is higher than it was a few years ago and the perception of disorder is very real. The repeal of Roe v. Wade is still helping Democrats at the margins—without it, Republicans would probably be running even stronger—but economics and crime have become much more salient for the average voter. In New York, Lee Zeldin, the Trump-loving Republican congressman, has hammered Hochul on elevated crime rates. He will undoubtedly pull Democrats who voted for Andrew Cuomo, Hillary Clinton, or Joe Biden, and even those who dedicated themselves to every fast twitch of the Jan. 6 and Russiagate news cycles. That is life now. They’ll hope Zeldin cracks some skulls.
Beyond Zeldin, there’s a Democrat-run state legislature that will, barring true catastrophe for the Democrats, stay in their control. What will likely fall, however, are the supermajorities—the veto-proof margins in the State Senate and Assembly that, in theory, lent the legislature a great amount of leverage. Enough Republicans are poised to win to erase the Senate supermajority and take away, more surprisingly, the huge margin Assembly Democrats have always enjoyed.
What does this mean exactly? Is it good for moderates? Progressives? Okay for Hochul if she wins? A boon for Zeldin if he somehow pulls off the upset?
Before speculation, it’s worth looking at what’s actually happening. Thanks to the blue wave year of 2018 and a strong showing with Biden at the top of the ticket in 2020—downballot Democrats, overall, did not run well that year—Democrats built up a veto-proof majority of 43 seats in the State Senate. While this majority is weighted to New York City, there is a large contingent of suburban lawmakers in Long Island, Westchester, and the Hudson Valley. There are center-left lawmakers in Rochester. It’s a large, geographically and ideologically diverse body that is held together, with relative comity, by Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the majority leader.
Many of the Democrats beyond the five boroughs are in danger of losing. Several within the city could fall too if the red wave crests high enough. Redistricting was, overall, a disaster for Democrats, but the court-appointed special master’s neutral maps did end the Republican gerrymander that had locked Democrats out of the State Senate majority for most of the last 60 years. The New York City and Long Island districts became, on the balance, more friendly to Democrats—not better than the maps the Democrats wanted to draw, but better than any that existed in the last half century. Two new seats were added in the city. One, a safe Democratic district in Manhattan and western Queens, will be held by the socialist Kristen Gonzalez. The other, in the Brooklyn neighborhoods Bensonhurst and Sunset Park, should be won by Democrat Iwen Chu, but is a threat to be GOP-controlled if Zeldin manages a huge margin there.
Democrats will lose seats in the State Senate. The question is where and how many. Long Island, where Republicans ran up large margins in 2021 campaigning against the partial end of cash bail, will probably be something of a bloodbath for Democrats, even with suburban voters who care about abortion rights. Donald Trump himself was a complicated figure in Nassau and Suffolk, enormously popular with certain parts of the Republican base but also alienating to affluent voters with college degrees. With its low density and high percentage of property owners, Long Island has always been a challenge for Democrats, and a law-and-order, tax-cutting message is a perpetual winner in a place that identifies, as much as anything else, with not being of New York City. The suburbs are increasingly diverse—the Latino population has boomed in Suffolk County—but white backlash politics aren’t dead, either. Voters of all races, though, care about crime and inflation, and Democrats naturally are on the defensive.
Democrat John Brooks, a moderate running in a district Trump won by 3 points in 2020, is likely to lose, even with a fundraising advantage. Straight ticket Zeldin voters may drown him out. Kevin Thomas narrowly survived a 2020 re-election and could be in peril for the same reason as Brooks, even with resource advantages. The Nassau County seat Todd Kaminsky vacated is a Biden +11 district but could flip if Zeldin’s margin is great enough. On the North Shore of Nassau County, Democrat Anna Kaplan could survive, though she’ll have to do it against Jack Martins, the Republican who used to represent a version of that State Senate district. It’s not impossible to imagine Brooks, Thomas, and Kaplan all losing, with Republicans flipping the Kaminsky seat. One piece of good news does exist for Democrats on Long Island: Monica Martinez, a former state senator, is now running in a redrawn Biden +23 district that used to held by Republican Phil Boyle. Flipping that seat could mitigate some of the other losses.
Democrats are playing defense in the Hudson Valley as well. Democratic State Senator Elijah Reichlin-Melnick has outraised his GOP rival, William Weber, but his redrawn district is now just Biden +3, which means he’ll have to overcome heavy headwinds to win again. Two incumbent state senators, Democrat Michelle Hinchey and Republican Sue Serino, are pitted against each other in a Biden +14 district that could be a much-needed pickup opportunity if Serino loses. State Senator James Skoufis, something of a rising Democratic star, now has to survive in a Trump +3 district. He has raised $1 million, an enormous amount of money for a legislative race, and his GOP opponent, Dorey Houle, has just $28,000. Skoufis, given those staggering advantages, should win, but fewer and fewer voters may be in a ticket-splitting mood in a district Trump won. Skoufis’ problem is the same as any other Democrat’s—too many Zeldin and House Republican voters who decide their state senator should be in the same party too.
The theme here is that Senate Democrats have outraised and outspent Senate Republicans by plenty. This is the advantage of being in the majority, with donors looking to curry favor with winners. In New York City, Republicans are fielding fringe candidates with few resources, potentially missing opportunities to do serious damage to the Democratic majority. Conditions for Democrats could be dismal enough that Republicans could, with the right candidates, flip at least two New York City seats and take a third district that’s currently open. In Queens, John Liu and Toby Stavisky represent seats where Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa was highly competitive, capitalizing on the Asian turn to the GOP and the anger white outer borough moderates have felt toward Democrats. Stavisky, who is 83, might be more vulnerable than Liu, who remains a trailblazing figure in New York’s Asian community. Stavisky’s defeat is not out of the realm of possibility. A year ago, a far-right Republican, Vickie Paladino, won an eastern Queens City Council race against Tony Avella, a conservative Democrat who had held elected office for decades.
Brooklyn as a battleground is another unpleasant surprise for Democrats. Iwen Chu, a former staffer to the long-serving local assemblyman Peter Abbate, would be a heavy favorite to win a new Asian majority State Senate district in Sunset Park and Bensonhurst. Sliwa won the district in the mayoral election, beating out Eric Adams. Chu’s advantage is that she is Asian and her opponent, Vito LaBella, is not. The election will be an interesting test case. Will Chu be able to win Asian voters who otherwise split their ticket and choose Zeldin over Hochul? Identity might win out. Another district suddenly in play is the Staten Island-Brooklyn seat long held by Diane Savino, a conservative Democrat. Never much competitive for the GOP, it’s now verging on toss-up territory between Jessica Scarcella-Spanton, a former Savino staffer, and Republican Joseph Tirone.
If Zeldin sweeps southern Brooklyn, winning Asian voters, white moderates, and Orthodox Jews, it’s likely a few Assembly districts flip. Mathylde Frontus, Peter Abbate, Bill Colton, and Steve Cymbrowitz are all vulnerable. All, outside of Frontus, are moderate or even conservative Democrats. All will probably not lose—Colton, for example, has a deep relationship with Asian Bensonhurst voters—but it’s worth keeping an eye on the far-flung reaches of my home borough. As are the margins upstate, where rural Assembly Democrats have managed to hold on despite tough election cycles. The polarization of the electorate could do them in, too. A wave year may erase close to a dozen Assembly Democrats. Jen Lunsford, Phil Steck, Al Stirpe, Monica Wallace, Karen McMahon, Didi Barrett, Carrie Woerner, William Conrad and Pat Burke could all be in jeopardy. What all of this means—a shrunken Democratic majority, or no majority at all—I’ll explore in a future piece.