ROSLYN, N.Y. — Democrats began the year clinging to New York state as a bulwark against GOP gerrymandering and a potentially brutal midterm. Instead, it’s become a giant headache.
A redistricting mishap and President Joe Biden’s lingering toxicity upended Democratic hopes of creating a seawall of deep-blue seats that could offset House losses elsewhere. They started the cycle thinking they could net at least three seats — now, in the worst-case scenario, they could lose as many as five. On top of that, their own party campaign chairman faces both a primary and a potential general election slog.
“We’ve gone from a map that looked like a slam dunk to just being slammed,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who once led the House Democratic campaign arm. “This is one of the most competitive environments that I’ve seen in New York at every level.”
The state is hosting a slew of competitive primaries Tuesday in heavily Democratic districts, including a dozen-candidate pileup for an open seat in Manhattan and Brooklyn and an incumbent-versus-incumbent battle between two veteran committee chairs. But primary voters will basically have the final say in those contests. In several purple-tinged seats, they will only finalize matchups in races that Republicans hope to contest in the fall in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island.
It’s an uncomfortable situation many New York Democrats feel was avoidable. The party used its control of state government to thwart a bipartisan commission tasked with drawing the new political lines, instead passing a map that could have yielded Democrats 22 of the state’s 26 districts. (After 2020, the delegation split was 19 Democrats to 8 Republicans. The state is set to lose a district due to reapportionment after the 2020 census.) But in one of the most consequential developments of the redistricting cycle, a Democratic-leaning court struck down the map as an illegal partisan gerrymander and imposed its own.
That court-drawn map, coupled with Biden’s still-low approval ratings and ominous historical trends, have Democrats across the state bracing for impact, particularly in any seat Biden carried by less than double-digits in 2020.
At a campaign event here in the closing days of his primary campaign for an open Long Island seat, Democratic candidate Robert Zimmerman devoted some of his stump speech to implore voters to take his race seriously.
“Biden won it by 8 percentage points. Now most Democrats, they think we’ve got a lock on it but by every analysis this is a tossup congressional district,” Zimmerman told supporters gathered in the backyard of a sprawling home in a village in Nassau County. “The Republicans know it’s a toss-up. We have to get that across, too. We’ve got to make that clear to our own folks.”
Trouble on the Island
Zimmerman’s home base is causing particular anxiety for some Democrats — and, they feel, not enough anxiety for others taking the more blue-leaning portions of Long Island for granted.
Local elections last year on Long Island ended in a rout for Democrats, with the GOP nabbing a slew of offices in Nassau and Suffolk counties after their candidates hammered Democrats on crime rates and the state’s new bail reform laws. Now, Democratic Reps. Tom Suozzi and Kathleen Rice are vacating House seats there, leaving Republicans a chance to build on their gains without having to take on well-funded incumbents.
Both districts lean Democratic, and Rice’s seat, which President Joe Biden carried by nearly 15 points, would be especially difficult for Republicans to win. But after 2021, some in the party are sounding the alarm. They’re warning the national party not to ignore any district or get distracted by trying to flip Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin’s open seat or the one held by GOP Rep. Andrew Garbarino.
“Democrats ignore Long Island at their peril,” Rice said, adding that she had given the same advice to her party’s campaign officials. “We have to invest in keeping the seats that we have, and be realistic about the seats that we can pick up, or Long Island could turn completely red.”
Zimmerman, a longtime DNC member who boasts endorsements from Hillary Clinton and from Israel, who once held the seat, is running for Suozzi’s district. That primary also includes Josh Lafazan, a Nassau County legislator with backing from Suozzi and a big-spending super PAC with ties to the cryptocurrency industry. Republicans are on track to nominate George Santos, a financier with a rare profile who says Democrats will have a hard time tagging him as a typical Republican.
“I’m a free thinker,” he said during an interview outside an Indian Independence Day event in Queens. “I’m Latino, I’m gay, I’m Jewish. I do what I want. I don’t fit in the boxes that they want me to fit in.”
Santos lost to Suozzi in 2020 but came closer than other GOP candidates have in recent years. He has taken pointed steps to connect with diverse communities in the district: At an “India Day” celebration earlier this month, attendees stopped him to shake his hand or ask for pictures.
“I might be probably one of your most unique Republicans in the House come 2023,” Santos said.
Still, Democrats say they will have no problem yoking him to extreme elements in the party, noting that he attended pro-Trump rallies in D.C. around Jan. 6 and that, in 2020, he told The Island Now he favored a federal abortion ban. (In an interview with POLITICO, he said he would not support a ban and was noncommittal about whether he would back Trump should he run in 2024.)
In Rice’s district, Republicans have coalesced around Hempstead Councilman Anthony D’Esposito, a former NYPD officer. The seat strongly favors Democrats but could be a trouble spot if Biden’s numbers don’t recover significantly.
If that happens, Republicans are gleefully predicting they could net several seats without losing any of their incumbents.
“I believe that there will be at least 10 to 12 if not more Republicans in the New York congressional delegation come January,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin, who vacated his Long Island seat to run for governor.
The other trouble spot for Democrats lies in the Hudson Valley, which stretches from the outskirts of the city into the deep Upstate. The court-imposed map drew three districts there that Biden carried by 10 points or less.
The region is also home to the latest competitive special election of the midterms because Democrat Antonio Delgado left his seat vacant to serve as lieutenant governor. Democrat Pat Ryan and Republican Marc Molinaro are locked in a fierce battle to serve out the remainder of his term in a Tuesday race that could break either way.
Yet no matter who wins the special, Molinaro and Ryan are both running for full terms — but in different districts, thanks to another quirk of the state’s redistricting. Molinaro, the Dutchess County Executive and a long sought-after GOP congressional recruit, will face either farmer Jamie Cheney or attorney Josh Riley in what is likely to be the most competitive seat in the state this fall.
Ryan, meanwhile, will take on Republican state Assemblymember Colin Schmitt in a different district to the south, which Biden would have carried by 9 points.
Democrats in those races have campaigned heavily on abortion access — but in a sign of the times, they are also willing to be critical of Biden.
At a campaign event in Woodstock, Riley said he was outraged that the Biden administration had given licenses to China to manufacture new battery technologies that were developed with U.S. taxpayer funds.
“It pisses me off to no end that we’re not creating those jobs here in the United States and here in Upstate New York,” he said. “I have a lot of concerns about the Biden administration allowing that.”
In an interview, Ryan declined to say whether he would support Biden if he ran in 2024 and said, as an Army veteran, he had issues with the Afghanistan withdrawal. But he also strongly praised Biden’s policy agenda, from the infrastructure bill to the Inflation Reduction Act.
In a final Hudson Valley matchup, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will have to defend a seat Biden won by 10 points. He faces a spirited primary challenge from progressive state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and the winner of that contest will likely face Republican Michael Lawler, another state lawmaker who ousted a Democratic incumbent in 2020.
National Republicans have already booked TV air time in Maloney’s district, relishing the chance to distract the leader of House Democrats’ campaign arm with his own reelection.
In an interview, Maloney said he was confident about winning his primary. Describing his campaign situation as putting him in a “player-coach” role, he said his record of winning tough general election contests was why his colleagues trusted him to lead the DCCC.
“I didn’t win five races as a gay guy in a Trump district by hoping for the best or taking things for granted,” he said. “We’re going to work hard, we assume it will be competitive, but we’re going to win.”
Maloney insisted GOP plans for big New York gains were overblown, especially given the competitive nature of the special election for Delgado’s seat and the uproar over abortion rights.
“The Republicans have been overconfident and cocky. And the whole world has changed in the last two months,” he said, adding: “They have an assumption that there will be a backlash or a wave. But I think they know that’s slipping away every day.”
Democrats do have one strong potential flip target in the state: the redrawn seat of retiring Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.). Republicans have a primary there that will help determine whether or not they can win that seat, which Biden would have won by 8 points in 2020.
Still, Republican outside groups are flush with cash and are determined to spend a chunk of it on offense in New York. That means Democrats could have to devote precious resources to shore up targeted districts that they would rather redirect elsewhere — and likely would have directed elsewhere under Democrats’ original redistricting map.
“New York Democrats overplayed their hand,” said Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the largest House GOP super PAC. “Some of the best pickup opportunities nationwide are in New York and we will be seriously contesting races all over the state in a significant way.”