New York Could End Up Costing Democrats the House. How Did That Happen?

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On Wednesday, powerful Democrat Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney conceded to Republican Mike Lawler in New York’s 17th congressional district. The loss was a crushing blow to Democrats, who faced a remarkably high number of competitive races in a state that is normally a bedrock of their power. Maloney, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, had been tasked with defending Democrats’ control of the House. But Maloney’s defeat, along with losses by fellow New York Democrats, ultimately could be a reason why his party loses the chamber.

National Democrats were forced to leap into action—investing cash, and flying in big names—late in the midterm cycle, after polling suggested the solidly liberal state, which contains twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, could become unexpectedly competitive. Ultimately, that investment might not have proven enough. As of Wednesday afternoon Republicans had picked up at least two House seats in New York state, with two more still too close to call. Democrats went into the election with a lead of only five seats in the House. Republicans are just 13 seats away from controlling the chamber, with 54 races too close to call.

What happened here?

Some Democratic operatives have blamed re-districting to explain the Republicans’ success. But that doesn’t tell the full story, observers say. “I’m not sure that there is a re-districting harm story in New York,” says Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “These are pretty Democratic districts, and the Democrats just underperformed their peers nationwide.”

New York’s re-districting process was shaken up this spring when New York’s highest court struck down the proposed map that had been drawn by the Democratic-supermajority in the state legislature. Under the legislature’s proposal, Democrats would have had an advantage in 22 of the state’s 26 congressional districts. The New York Court of Appeals ruled that it illegally engaged in partisan gerrymandering, and directed an independent special master to draw the map instead. The decision caused an uproar, delayed primaries from June until August, and pitted powerful Democratic New York City incumbents like Representatives Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney against each other in the same district.

Miles Coleman, an associate editor of the elections forecaster Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says that under the legislature’s original map, he believes Democrats could have held several more seats. For example, New York’s District 11 in Staten Island—where Republican Nicole Malliotakis ultimately beat Democrat Max Rose by over 20 points—also included some more liberal Brooklyn precincts under the original map. Had it not been tossed out by the court, Rose could have had a stronger chance of prevailing.

But that does not explain the margin by which Democrats underperformed in other areas. Republican Anthony D’Esposito defeated Democrat Laura Gillen by nearly four points in New York’s 4th District, a liberal-leaning area that Democratic incumbent Kathleen Rice had held since 2015. District 4 looked basically the same under the legislature’s proposed map, says Coleman, meaning D’Esposito likely would have prevailed even without the court intervention in redistricting.

Sean Patrick Maloney’s defeat in New York’s 17th district, happened in a place Biden soundly won in 2020. “If you look around the country, there aren’t that many Biden +10 districts that Democrats are losing,” says Li. “That suggests there were some unusual shifts in the New York electorate.”

The relatively low appeal of state-wide New York Democrats in the 2022 elections could also have hurt candidates down the ballot. Party members panicked in October after polling showed Republican gubernatorial challenger Lee Zeldin was fairing surprisingly well against incumbent Democrat Gov. Kathy Hochul, causing national Democrats including President Biden to campaign on her behalf in the final weeks before the election. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was also reelected by a notably smaller margin than he was six years ago, garnering only 56% of the vote to his 71% in 2016. “[Schumer’s] not giving those Democrats down the ballot much of a boost,” says Coleman.

The governor’s race was dominated by debates over crime rates, as Zeldin criticized recent changes in criminal justice laws aimed at reducing incarceration rates for Black New Yorkers and members of other minority groups. Hochul, meanwhile, pointed to data suggesting shootings and homicides have actually gone down in New York. Such public safety concerns may have buoyed Republican congressional candidates as well, powered by Zeldin’s notable surge.

“It’s unusual. You wouldn’t think Democrats would lose districts like New York’s 4th or New York’s 17th, except in a red tsunami year, and this was not a red tsunami year,” Li says. “I think it’s just a reminder that at the end of the day, all politics are local.”

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