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The 2022 election in New York

Americans made their way to the polls last week and collectively voted to keep the status quo, more or less. The U.S. Senate will remain in Democratic Party control with a razor thin majority; control of the House is still up for grabs. Whichever party ends up in the majority, that margin will also be small.

Here in New York the election results left the status quo in place. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Schumer, Governor Hochul, Attorney General James, Comptroller DiNapoli – all Democrats – were elected to statewide offices in this deep blue state. Voters also maintained the status quo in the state Senate and state Assembly, with large Democratic Party majorities in each house.

But looking at those results from 30,000 feet ignores troubling signs for Democrats. The big win forecast for incumbent Governor Hochul ended up much closer than most expected. The Democrat Legislative majorities in both houses lost seats. In the outcome that could have the biggest impact, seats that the Democrats controlled in the Congress flipped to Republicans. Those “flips” may make the difference in who controls the House.

So, what happened? Let’s look at three areas: campaign financing, turnout, and redistricting.

First, the basics. Voter enrollment in New York gives a big edge to Democrats. By a roughly 2 to 1 margin, Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York. In fact, there are more New Yorkers not enrolled in a political party than there are Republicans. Republicans have not won a statewide election in 20 years.

Yet, Republican Lee Zeldin came within 5 points of beating Democrat incumbent Kathy Hochul. The candidates relied on two different campaign fundraising strategies.

The Hochul campaign used the power of incumbency to raise an enormous amount of money in a short period of time. Lobbyists and those seeking government business are always looking for a leg up, donating to an incumbent – particularly one in a blue state – seems like a safe bet. The governor knows that and used it to spectacular advantage.

Hochul raised $50 million in one year, a record for the largest haul in the shortest time in New York history. She used a ton of it to fend off primary challengers and ran up a big polling advantage over her Republican opponent, Lee Zeldin, a Congressmember from the Republican-voting eastern end of Long Island. Zeldin is a conservative, who supports gun rights, opposes abortion, and voted to overturn the 2020 Presidential election. He seemed to be mismatched with the New York electorate.

Like Republicans nationwide, Zeldin organized his campaign around public safety and inflation. He was disciplined and hard hitting. And his campaign benefited from another campaign financing practice – one that allows unlimited spending by an individual or an interest group if they do not formally coordinate with the candidate. These so-called “independent expenditures” helped keep Zeldin in the game through the summer and into the fall. Largely funded by one man – billionaire Ron Lauder, who spent at least $11 million on behalf of the Zeldin candidacy – this support helped to offset the governor’s fundraising advantage.

The Lauder barrage hammered Hochul on crime and coupled with Zeldin’s disciplined message narrowed the polling gap as Election Day drew closer, which in turn encouraged more Republican donors to help Zeldin.

How the Hochul campaign spent her war chest to fend off Zeldin will become clearer when disclosures are made public next month, but it took a concerted effort by big Democratic names – President Biden, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and other luminaries – to boost turnout and help the governor win her election.

Which leads to the second election factor: turnout. How could a conservative Republican candidate lose by such a narrow margin in a deep blue state? A review of the election results does show one big change in the 2022 election: lower voter turnout in New York City.

New York City voters cast more than 400,000 fewer votes in 2022 than in 2018 – the last gubernatorial election. Of course, all those votes would not have gone to Hochul, but New York City has a 5-to-1 Democrat enrollment advantage, so a turnout in 2022 as there was in 2018 could have doubled the governor’s margin of victory, turning a squeaker into a solid win.

And then there is redistricting – the once-a-decade process for adjusting state legislative and congressional district lines based on the census. All races have their own unique and local rationales, but it’s fair to say that the district lines drawn for the Congress and state Senate in New York State helped upend Democrat candidates. Democrats had tried to draw their own lines, but New York’s courts ruled them unconstitutional and drew unbiased lines instead. Those new lines put some Democrats in a bind. For example, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney was running for re-election in which only about 25% of the voting population was from his old district. In a big win for the G.O.P., Maloney lost.

Where Democrats had the hardest time was in the suburban areas of New York – those on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley. How Democrats respond to this growing electoral threat is anyone’s guess, but shrinking majorities are something that should raise their concern. Political alignments are rarely permanent.

When it came to electoral expectations Republicans, on the other hand, did far better in New York than anywhere else in the country and will consider New York in the “W” column despite coming up short in the statewide races.

The lessons the governor and the Legislative majorities take from last Tuesday’s results could well dictate the outcome in November 2024.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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