After a gubernatorial contest that had tightened to a practical toss-up polling-wise, jostling a sleepy New York Democratic establishment into a last-minute frenzy that included high-profile rallies with Hillary Clinton and President Joe Biden, the clearing smoke leaves a victorious Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Hochul vs. Zeldin in an unexpectedly close race
The former Cuomo administration second-in-command, who would go on to take the reins as Cuomo resigned amid investigations into allegations of sexual harassment and the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, has won her first full term, also making her the first woman elected to the state’s highest office. She fended off an unexpectedly strong challenge by Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Long Island congressman who had been the beneficiary of a spending blitz by billionaire Estée Lauder heir Ronald Lauder and fashioned a campaign largely around crime and economic concerns.
Zeldin received over 47 percent of the vote, the most a GOP statewide candidate has received in the overwhelmingly blue New York in decades, but was hampered by a struggle to reconcile the expectations of a MAGA-fied base and a much more liberal statewide electorate. He downplayed his involvement in the Trump team’s efforts to overturn the 2020 elections and insisted that he would not take action to curb abortion rights in the state despite his strong anti-choice beliefs, but seemed unable to articulate much of an active vision beyond being opposed to Hochul’s policies.
New York Republicans flip two seats
Yet Hochul’s victory doesn’t mean that Democrats had a great night in New York. While a predicted red wave failed to materialize and Democrats actually overperformed in races around the country, likely keeping control of the Senate and batting back several Trump-endorsed election denialists, a notable exception was New York.
Republicans won all four congressional races on Long Island, flipping two, including a victory by George Santos, who attended the Jan. 6 insurrection. Republicans also ousted Hudson Valley Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who ironically heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Several Democratic incumbents in the State Legislature were also defeated, potentially imperiling the party’s supermajorities in both houses. A lot of this swing seems to have been driven by fears about crime, which as we’ve discussed before, have been extraordinarily overheated by political opportunists and right-wing media outlets like the New York Post. Ironically, crime became a preeminent concern particularly on Long Island and parts of the state where the supposed crime wave wasn’t even happening.
New York Democrats drop the ball
It’s hard to overstate how significant New York Democrats’ total dropping of the ball is; it’s entirely possible that the House of Representatives will flip to Republican control solely on the basis of gains made in New York as toss-up races in other states seem mainly to be breaking in Democrats’ favor. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Influential Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lay the blame squarely at the feet of the state Democratic Party and particularly Chair Jay Jacobs. The Brooklyn Democratic Party has spent months in internecine fights over control of the future of the party and made very little efforts to actually secure reelections, resulting in various losses. Whatever the causes, the dissection of the failure will consume a lot of political debate in the state for the next few weeks.
As for Hochul, she heads into this full term with a clearer mandate, which also means perhaps some less timidity with executing her own agenda and a bit less going along to get along with the multifaceted interests of the Democrats in the legislature. Among her longstanding priorities are the development of more affordable housing, particularly around transit hubs, and improving the state’s healthcare system, particularly in the face of some runaway costs. It’s her time now, and we’ll all be watching.