Political forecasters like the Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight.com predicted the Republican Party would win the House of Representatives in the midterm, but it was a surprise they only eked out a tiny 222-213 victory, a mirror image of the Democrats’ current majority.
It was especially galling for New Yorkers to lose four Democratic seats right here. There’s already copious commentary about the midterms, so my focus here will be on the self-inflicted wounds of the New York Democrats in the leadup to the election. There is, of course, no singular explanation for the 2022 midterm election results. In fact, one 538.com columnist urged a little humility for anyone seeking to explain the election https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/election-explanations-are-hard/ .
GOVERNOR HOCHUL’S INITIAL MISTAKES BEGIN THE PATH TO HOUSE LOSSES
After Governor Hochul took over following Andrew Cuomo’s resignation, she was interviewed by the New York Times on August 24th, 2021, about the upcoming redistricting of Congressional and State Legislative lines. A new structure, an Independent Redistricting Commission, had been charged with the development of fair, nonpartisan lines following decades of partisan gerrymandering in New York. Here’s what she said,
“ Do you plan to use your influence to help Democrats expand the House majority through the redistricting process ? “
“ Yes. I am also the leader of the New York State Democratic Party. I embrace that. “ https://bit.ly/3HL9zzd .
This was a mistake. Sending an unmistakable message to the Democratic leaders of the Legislature that she would sign partisan lines gave them the opening to do whatever they wanted. It was not known in August 2021 that the Independent Commission would fail to agree on a unified plan for the lines, but it was known the Legislature had the power to override the Commissions’ lines by two-thirds votes of both Houses, which the Democrats had. The Governor would have been wiser to be a public leader, not a partisan leader.
THE CHOICE OF BRIAN BENJAMIN FOR LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR ENDS WITH THE LOSS OF A HOUSE SEAT IN THE HUDSON VALLEY
On August 25th, 2022, Governor Hochul chose State Senator Brian Benjamin from Manhattan to become the State’s Lieutenant Governor. The young Senator had good credentials; a business background, ties to the Harlem political establishment. There was a red flag, however; “ straw man “ contributions to his unsuccessful NYC Comptroller campaign https://www.thecity.nyc/2021/1/4/22214373/brian-benjamin-comptroller-contributions . The judgment to select Benjamin on the part of the Governor and her advisers was poor; there was enough information available to stay away from him. By the time Benjamin was indicted and resigned, the State was only two weeks away from the Courts throwing out the Legislature’s lines. Hochul then chose a member of Congress, Antonio Delgado from the Hudson Valley, whose district would go to the Republicans in November by 1.6 points.
TWO NASSAU COUNTY INCUMBENT HOUSE DEMOCRATS CHOOSE NOT TO RUN FOR RE-ELECTION AFTER THE NOVEMBER 2021 ELECTIONS ON LONG ISLAND
In November 2021 incumbent Democratic County Executive Laura Curran was defeated for re-election by Bruce Blakeman in a close election. Democratic candidates for District Attorney in Nassau and Suffolk County were also defeated https://abc7ny.com/nassau-county-suffolk-bruce-blakeman-laura-curran/11194098/ . Within months both incumbent House members in Nassau County announced their departures.
Tom Suozzi, the third Congressional district member from the northern half of Nassau County, announced his bid for Governor on Nov. 29th, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/29/nyregion/tom-suozzi-governor-ny.html . He would go on to a poor showing in the Democratic primary in June 2022 against Governor Hochul. Fourth Congressional district member Kathleen Rice, from the southern half of Nassau County, announced she would not run for re-election on February 15th, 2022 https://www.cnn.com/2022/02/15/politics/kathleen-rice-not-running-congress/index.html .
Republican Anthony Esposito won Rice’s seat by @ 9,800 votes out of 271,000 cast, about 3.5%. Republican George Santos, now imbroiled in stunning lies about background, won Suozzi’s seat by over 20,000 votes, about 8% (Suozzi had handily defeated Santos in 2020). Could Tom Suozzi and Kathleen Rice have held their seats if they had chosen to stay and fight?
THE REDISTRICTING DISASTER
In January 2022 the Independent Redistricting Commission was unable to vote on a unified, bipartisan plan to submit new district lines to the Legislature, which then chose to take over the process and draw its own maps, which the Governor signed. Litigation began and reached the New York Court of Appeals (the State’s highest court) by April. The Court, in a 4-3 decision, rejected the lines as both partisan and procedurally defective and ordered a Court-appointed Special Master to write the lines https://www.thecity.nyc/2022/4/27/23045209/new-york-redistricting-court-appeals-difiore . Chief Judge Janet DeFiore said the lines had been drawn with an “ impermissible partisan purpose “. The June primaries for Congress and Senate were cancelled and rescheduled for August to await the Special Master’s lines. Redistricting law experts and the Democrats argued the law required to Court to give the Legislature a further chance, but the Court said No.
Were the lines so blatantly partisan that they violated the carefully structured legislation from 2014 to give nonpartisan redistricting a chance? You could make a strong argument that was the case. The Republican-held Staten Island-Brooklyn district, was redrawn from a Trump +10 in 2020 to a Biden + 10 in 2020 by removing Southern Brooklyn and substituting overwhelmingly Democratic Park Slope and Sunset Park. The Suozzi district was redrawn from Biden +10 to Biden +14, combining Nassau and Westchester Counties by crossing Long Island Sound. The 17th district went from Biden 0.6% in 2020 to Biden + 13%, the 19th from Biden +1.4% to Biden 10%, and the 22nddistrict from Biden +8 to Biden +18. Enough said? Redistricting and You-NY https://bit.ly/3jaEw5P .
If Governor Hochul had demanded a series of equitable procedural steps by the Legislature to address the failures of the Independent Redistricting Commission, and forced maps with fairer lines, by bully pulpit or even by veto, could the Court have accepted a different map? We will never know.
HOCHUL SENDS OUT A MULTIBILLION $ TAX BREAK TO HOMEOWNERS DURING THE PRIMARY RATHER THAN THE GENERAL ELECTION
Governor Hochul’s budget in January 2022 included a $ 2 ½ billion property tax rebate to homeowners, which was approved by the Legislature on April 9th. At budget time, the rebate was scheduled to be sent out in October 2022, with an obvious political purpose for the general election. The highest rebates were intended to go to the region of the State with the highest property taxes, the New York City suburbs.
In May 2022 I wrote about a State Comptroller report released on April 15th showing $ 3 billion in tax revenue had come into the State Treasury above March expectations, including an unbudgeted $ 2 billion https://jimbrennanscommentaries.com/2022/05/15/billions-keep-rolling-into-the-ny-state-treasury-above-expectations-heres-what-to-do-with-the-money-before-legislators-leave-albany-in-just-a-few-weeks/ . I suggested the State might supplement the property tax rebate with an income tax rebate that could cover more residents, since homeowners were only 54% of the State’s population. In fact, by early June the Governor and the Division of the Budget were already moving the checks out the door in time for the June 28th Democratic primary https://www.newsday.com/news/region-state/star-exemption-property-tax-rebate-checks-hochul-state-legislature-bvij60h3 . But the Governor’s opponents weren’t really a threat. She easily defeated them, 68% to Williams’ 19% and Suozzi’s 13%.
Couldn’t the Governor wait until October to send out checks? Couldn’t the Governor and the Legislature have reworked the benefit to provide more relief after billions of new, unanticipated dollars had come in on April 15th? Would just a handful more voters have awakened to vote for her and the local Democratic candidates if the checks had arrived right before the election, which was the original point?
DESPITE ALL, THE COMPETITIVE HOUSE RACES IN NEW YORK, LIKE MANY ACROSS THE NATION, WERE CLOSE; ELEVEN IN THE NATION, INCLUDING TWO IN NEW YORK, ARE DECIDED BY ONE POINT OR LESS
Across the country, Republicans won seven House seats, including two in New York, by one point or less. The Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Sean Patrick Maloney, running in the 17th Congressional district in the Hudson Valley, lost by 1,820 votes out of 285,000 cast, or 0.6%. There was another House race in New York where the Democrat lost by 1% of the vote. The 22nd Congressional district, where Republican incumbent John Katko retired, Democrat Francis Conole lost to Republican Brandon Williams 50.5%- 49.5%. He lost by 2,600 votes out of 268,000 cast https://www.elections.ny.gov/2022ElectionResults.html .This seat was not one of the four in New York the Democrats had held and lost; this was a pickup opportunity following a Republican retirement. Elsewhere in the country, the Democrats lost two seats, one in California and one in Colorado, by less than 600 votes each. Incumbent Democrat Cindy Axne in Iowa lost her seat by 0.7%, the Democrats lost a vacant seat in Michigan by 0.5%, and failed to defeat Republican incumbent David Schweikert in Arizona by 0.9%. Democrats also won four House seats by less than one point, in Colorado, Connecticut, New Mexico, and Washington https://www.cookpolitical.com/charts/house-charts/national-house-vote-tracker/2022 .
FOUR MORE HOUSE RACES, INCLUDING TWO IN NEW YORK, WERE DECIDED FROM ONE TO TWO POINTS
Democrats also won one, and lost another, set of close House races in New York’s Hudson Valley. Within a period of a few weeks, Brian Benjamin was indicted and resigned ( most of the charges were recently dismissed https://www.thecity.nyc/politics/2022/12/5/23495342/brian-benjamin-charges-dismissed-lieutenant-governor ) and the Court overturned the Redistricting. With Congressional and State Senate districts plunged into uncertainty, Democratic incumbent Antonio Delgado vacated his 19th District seat, which he had won twice, to run with Governor Hochul as her Lieutenant Governor candidate.
The Republican candidate in the 19th district, Marc Molinaro, Dutchess County Executive, proceeded to defeat newcomer Democrat Josh Riley by 4,500 votes out of 287,000 cast, or 1.6%. In the third of the competitive Hudson Valley Congressional districts, Democrat Pat Ryan, running in the 18th District, eked out a tiny victory, winning by 3,600 votes, or 1.4%.
In Arizona, Democrats lost a close race in the 6th district to Juan Ciscomani, who won by 1.5%. In Pennsylvania, Democratic incumbent Susan Wild held on by two points in the 7th District.
THE CAMPAIGN, THE RESULTS, AND TURNOUT
Final results from the State Board of Elections showed Governor Kathy Hochul defeated Congressmember Lee Zeldin by @378,000 votes out of 5.9 million cast, or 53.2%-46.8%., 6.4%. She won in the City,70%-30%, and lost by identical margins in the New York City suburbs (Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland), 54-46%, and the rest of the State, 54-46%. Sean Patrick Maloney, interviewed in the New York Times after his defeat, said the Democrats’ first-time candidates in the New York City suburbs could not overcome the double-digit defeats of the Governor in suburbs surrounding the City in the backlash against crime inflamed by the New York Post/Fox News in the huge New York media market https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/10/nyregion/sean-patrick-maloney.html
Zeldin had the strongest showing of a Republican candidate for Governor since George Pataki won in 2002. The Democrats underestimated both Zeldin himself, the power of his anticrime message, and the backlash against the Democrats about inflation. In defense of Governor Hochul, it was not likely she could match Andrew Cuomo’s 2018 59% margin against a weak candidate as he sought a third term. A Siena poll taken a few weeks after she took over in August 2021 showed 41% of New Yorkers did not have an opinion of her https://scri.siena.edu/2021/09/14/hochul-has-early-42-17-favorability-rating-41-still-undecided/ Seven months later, with inflation raging as the State adopted its budget, another Siena poll showed she still faced strong headwinds. 40% of the voters wanted to re-elect her, 45% of voters preferred someone else, and 15% weren’t sure https://scri.siena.edu/2022/04/25/while-nyers-strongly-support-new-bail-law-changes-only-1-3-think-they-will-decrease-crime-38-say-theyll-have-no-effect/ .
The messages of the Democratic campaign were not weak; the rights of women to choose their bodily autonomy and commitment to democracy had their own potency. How did the potency of Zeldin’s message versus the potency of Hochul’s message match up in the motivation to vote in those critical districts?
Nate Cohn, the New York Times chief political analyst, pointed to an Albany Times-Union analysis of the vote across the State- https://bit.ly/3VKqwy4. This analysis showed that 63% of Republican and Conservative Party enrolled voters voted in the 2022 General election, compared to 47% of Democrats, 37% of unaffiliated voters, and 45% of other voters (most of whom are former members of the Independence Party). The Republican turnouts were even higher in the competitive districts:
I rounded off the numbers taken from the Times-Union analysis; the OnCDLine column is the total votes on the Congressional lines for the individual matchups. The Other? column reflects the fact that about 5% of the enrollment consists of the sum of Conservative and Independence parties, the Working Families party and others. Zeldin was clearly more successful in motivating conservative voters than the Democrats in motivating their own voters..
Despite some critical mistakes, the Democrats’ House losses in New York were as close as can be. For all the power of Zeldin’s campaign, if the district lines had been slightly different, or if some of their incumbents had chosen to stand their ground and run for re-election, they might have held several of these seats, but New York alone probably wouldn’t have lost the House for the Democrats.