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The Ruthless Midterm: New York Democrats Made Key Mistakes in the 2022 Elections But Still Barely Lost House Seats

Gov. Hochul, Reps. Maloney & Ryan (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)

Forecasters like the Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight predicted the Republican Party would win the House of Representatives in the midterm election, but it was a surprise the GOP only eked out a tiny 222-213 margin, 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 is the self-inflicted wounds by New York Democrats in the lead-up to the election, many of which have ongoing ramifications and lessons for the future. There is, of course, no singular explanation for the 2022 midterm election results. In fact, one FiveThirtyEight columnist urged a little humility for anyone seeking to explain the election.

But here are several reasons New York Democrats underperformed in 2022:

Governor Hochul’s Initial Mistakes Begin Path to House Losses
After Governor Kathy Hochul took over following Andrew Cuomo’s resignation in August 2021, she was interviewed by The New York Times and asked about the upcoming redistricting of congressional and state legislative lines. The new Independent Redistricting Commission was charged with the development of fair, nonpartisan lines following decades of partisan gerrymandering in New York.

“Do you plan to use your influence to help Democrats expand the House majority through the redistricting process?,” Hochul was asked. “Yes. I am also the leader of the New York State Democratic Party,” she answered. “I embrace that.”

This was a mistake. Sending a 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 Redistricting Commission would fail to agree on a unified plan for the lines, but it was known the Legislature had the power to override the commission’s lines by two-thirds votes of both houses, which the Democrats had in hand given their super-majorities. The Governor would have been wiser to be a public leader, not a partisan leader.

Also in August 2021, Governor Hochul chose State Senator Brian Benjamin of Manhattan to become Lieutenant Governor. Benjamin had some good credentials in his initial Senate tenure, a business background, downstate balance, and ties to the Harlem political establishment. There were red flags, however, especially the apparent straw-donor contributions to his New York City Comptroller campaign.

There was enough information available that should have kept Hochul away from the pick, and she and her advisors should have exercised better judgment. By the time Benjamin was indicted on federal corruption charges and resigned, the state was only two weeks away from the courts throwing out the Legislature’s new district lines for the House and State Senate.

Hochul then chose a member of Congress, Antonio Delgado from the Hudson Valley, as her second Lieutenant Governor. His 19th congressional district would eventually go Republican in November by just 1.6 points.

After 2021 Republican Wins on Long Island, Two House Democrats from Nassau County Chose Not to Run for Reelection
In November 2021 incumbent Democratic Nassau County Executive Laura Curran was defeated by Bruce Blakeman in a close election. Democratic candidates for District Attorney in both Nassau and Suffolk Counties were also defeated. Within months both incumbent House members in Nassau County announced their departures.

Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi, of the 3rd congressional district covering the northern half of Nassau County and a slice of Queens, announced his bid for Governor in late November 2021. He would go on to a poor showing in the Democratic primary in June 2022 against Governor Hochul and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

Democratic Rep. Kathleen Rice, of the 4th congressional district covering the southern half of Nassau County, announced she would not run for re-election in February 2022.

Republican Anthony Esposito won Rice’s seat by about 3.5% (about 9,800 votes of 271,000 cast). Republican George Santos, now embroiled in scandal over appalling lies about his background, won Suozzi’s seat by over 20,000 votes, about 8% (Suozzi had handily defeated Santos in 2020). 

Could Rice and Suozzi have held their seats if they had chosen to stay and fight?

The Redistricting Disaster
In January 2022 that 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 congressional and state legislative 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 craft nonpartisan lines.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said the lines had been drawn with an “impermissible partisan purpose.” The June primaries for Congress and State Senate were moved to August to await the special master’s lines. Redistricting law experts and Democrats argued the law required the court to give the Legislature another chance to draw the lines, but the Court of Appeals 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, NY-11, was redrawn from a Trump +10 in 2020 to a Biden +10 by removing Southern Brooklyn and substituting overwhelmingly Democratic Park Slope and Sunset Park. The 3rd congressional district represented by Suozzi was redrawn from Biden +10 to Biden +14 by combining Nassau and Westchester Counties by crossing Long Island Sound. The 17th congressional district represented by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (chair of the DCCC) went from Biden +0.6% to Biden +13%. The 19th congressional district was drawn from Biden +1.4% to Biden +10%. And the 22nd congressional district from Biden +8 to Biden +18. Enough said?

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 Sent a Tax Break to Homeowners During the Primary Not the General
Governor Hochul’s Executive Budget in January of this year included a $2.5 billion property tax rebate to homeowners, which was approved by the Legislature in April. 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 would go to the region of the state with the highest property taxes, the suburbs around New York City.

(In May I wrote about a State Comptroller report from mid-April showing $3 billion above March expectations in tax revenue had come into the state treasury, including an unbudgeted $2 billion. I suggested the state might want to supplement the property tax rebate with an income tax rebate that could cover more residents, since homeowner-households are only 54% of the state’s population. But no such move was made.)

Instead, by early June the governor and the Division of the Budget were already moving the property tax rebate checks out the door ahead of the Democratic primary that month. But the governor’s opponents weren’t really a threat. She easily defeated them, with 68% to Williams’ 19% and Suozzi’s 13%.

Couldn’t the governor have waited 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? 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, Competitive New York House Races, Like Many Across the Country, Were Very Close; 11 Nationally, Including 2 in New York, Were Decided by 1 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, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, lost in the 17th congressional district in the Hudson Valley by 1,820 votes out of 285,000 cast, or 0.6%.

In New York’s 22nd congressional district, the Democrat also lost by 1% of the vote. In that race, with Republican incumbent John Katko retiring, Democrat Francis Conole lost to Republican Brandon Williams 50.5%- 49.5%, a margin of about 2,600 votes out of 268,000 cast. This seat was not one of the four in New York that Democrats held and lost; this was a pickup opportunity following a Republican retirement.

Elsewhere in the country, Democrats lost a chance at two seats, one in California and one in Colorado, by fewer than 600 votes each. Additionally, incumbent Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne in Iowa lost her seat by 0.7%; Democrats lost a vacant seat in Michigan by 0.5%; and fell just short of defeating Republican Rep. 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.

4 More House Races, Including 2 in New York, Were Decided by 1-2 Points
Beyond Sean Patrick Maloney’s defeat to Republican Mike Lawler, Democrats also won one, and lost another, in close House races in New York’s Hudson Valley. In the 19th congressional district, vacated by Lieutenant Governor Antonio Delgado, who had won in 2018 and 2020, the Republican candidate, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro defeated 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 narrow victory, winning by 3,600 votes, or 1.4%. (Ryan had defeated Molinaro in the August special election to finish Delgado’s term in the outgoing 19th congressional district, then Ryan ran in the new 18th and Molinaro in the new 19th in the regular election.)

In Arizona, Democrats lost a close race in the 6th congressional district to Juan Ciscomani, who won by 1.5%. In Pennsylvania, Democratic incumbent Susan Wild held on by two points in the 7th congressional district.

The Campaign, Results, and Turnout in the Governor’s Race
Final results from the State Board of Elections show Governor Hochul defeated Rep. Zeldin by about 378,000 votes out of 5.9 million cast, or 53.2%-46.8%., a margin of 6.4%.

She won in New York City 70%-30%, and lost by identical margins, 54%-46%, in the New York City suburbs (Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland) and the rest of the state (Upstate/Western New York.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, interviewed in The New York Times after his defeat, said Democratic candidates in the New York City suburbs could not overcome Hochul’s double-digit defeat in those areas of Long Island and the Hudson Valley, indicative of the backlash against crime inflamed by The New York Post and Fox News in the huge New York media market.

Zeldin had the strongest showing of a Republican candidate for Governor since George Pataki won his third term in 2002. The Democrats underestimated both Zeldin himself, the power of his anti-crime message, and the backlash against Democrats over inflation.

In defense of Governor Hochul, it was not likely she could match Cuomo’s 2018 margin, 59%-36%, against a weak candidate as he sought a third term in the first statewide election after Trump’s 2016 win. 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. Seven months later, with inflation raging as the state adopted its budget, another Siena poll showed she still faced strong headwinds: 40% of voters wanted to re-elect her, 45% of voters preferred someone else, and 15% weren’t sure.

Campaign messaging from Hochul and other Democrats was not weak: women’s right to bodily autonomy and a 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. This analysis showed that 63% of Republican and Conservative Party voters cast ballots in the 2022 general election, compared to 47% of Democrats, 37% of party-unaffiliated voters, and 45% of ‘other’ voters (most of whom are former members of the Independence Party).

Turnout was higher among Democrats and Republicans in the most competitive congressional districts, but Republican turnout was still well above Democratic levels.

Despite some critical mistakes and the power of Zeldin’s campaign, Democrats’ House losses in New York were about as close as can be. if the district lines had been slightly different, or if some of Democratic incumbents had chosen to stand their ground and run for re-election, Democrats might have held several seats they lost.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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