The New York GOP’s Comeback

By Dov Katzenstein

Michael Lawler, Republican candidate for New York’s 17th congressional district. (Randy Monceaux Photography/Mike Lawler Congress via AP)

As the dust of the 2022 elections settles and a thin Republican majority in the House of Representatives takes shape, while the party’s leadership remains in doubt, one ironic point emerged as crystal-clear deep blue New York played an outsized role in the GOP’s success. Equally unequivocal was the role that overconfidence by Democrats in that state played ,both in a stymied gerrymander plan and progressive criminal justice policies, in giving the state GOP an incoming caucus of 11 seats in the coming Congress, four flipped in the past election.

Republicans went into mid-term elections bullish about what they hoped would be a sweeping House majority and the possibility of retaking the Senate. A combination of an unpopular president, inflation and typically favorable winds for the opposition party in midterms were on their side.
Yet, amid underperformance by populists backed by former President Donald Trump, successful Democratic galvanization of the Dobbs Supreme Court decision and other factors still percolating in the political laboratory, the GOP will barely edge out Democrats, by a margin of two to four seats. As such, without New York’s contribution, Republicans would be wrangling over minority leadership rather than the Speaker’s gavel.

Empire State Republicans were successful in holding on to nearly all seats previously held by their party. Replacing another Republican Congressman in a Buffalo area district will be Nick Langworthy, the state’s GOP chairman, who deserves much credit for his party’s good showing. Young and on board for the Trump presidency, but sensitive to the unique path many New York Republicans must plod, he persevered through a period when the GOP lost its hold on the State Senate and saw itself massively outpaced by Democrats in voter registration and fundraising. At a time when New York defined itself by “resistance” to Mr. Trump and a progressive force took hold of the state’s government, there were many who counted Republicans out, declaring it a one-party zone. Mr. Langworthy, though, persevered, raised money, looked for worthy candidates and built a strong network which became the foundation of the party’s resurgence.
Some of the district flips were impressive. George Santos won a Long Island district presently held by Democratic Congressman Tom Suozzi, who did not stand for re-election. That same district voted overwhelmingly for President Biden only two years prior.

Most noteworthy was Republican Assemblyman Mike Lawler’s victory over five-term Democratic Congressman and head of his party’s House campaign arm, Sean Patrick Maloney, in a suburban district that includes Rockland County. Mr. Lawler edged out his opponent 50.6 to 49.4, a margin of 3,200 votes.
“It shows [Republicans] can win in tough districts, and even up against some of the most powerful people in our government,” Mr. Lawler told the Times Union in an interview, before the many national results were final. “In the long run, this may end up being the margin between a majority and a minority. That speaks volumes to how critical this race was.”

One of the most important ingredients in the New York GOP’s rebound was Lee Zeldin’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid. Despite his loss, the competitive race undoubtedly carried a “down-ticket” effect, which played a significant role in other GOP Congressional and state victories.

While Governor Kathy Hochul emerged victorious, the fact that Mr. Zeldin got within four points of victory in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one speaks to the degree to which the party made itself a contender once again. It was the closest governor’s race in New York since 1994, when Republican George Pataki defeated Mario Cuomo.

Also reminiscent of the mid 90s, which saw Rudy Giuliani elected Mayor of New York City, GOP success was largely rooted on the foundation of missteps by ruling Democrats.

Republicans nationally campaigned on pinning the Democratic Congress and White House’s spending with record inflation. In New York, GOP candidates largely made rising costs a follow-up to tagging their opponents with violent urban crime surges easily linked to ending cash bail and a set of other progressive criminal justice reforms that have put many more criminals on the street and done away with stiff punishments that were seen as effective deterrents.

Democrats, including Governor Hochul, claimed the crime issue was being exaggerated by Republicans and argued rising levels were linked to national trends unconnected to the state’s reforms. After elections, however, some in the party admitted that its candidates failed to develop a sufficient response for voters.
“Public safety was an issue here, but there was no counter-narrative,” Andrew Gounardes, a Democratic state senator who won his race told Politico. “There was no Democratic messaging on public safety to either blunt the attacks or pivot or shift to anything else that voters cared about.”

Progressives told a different narrative, blaming party members for acknowledging increased dangers from violent crime rather than deflecting the issue.

“The crime panic was a cynical ploy by the right wing, just like the migrant caravans they invent every election cycle,” Democratic strategist Gabe Tobias told Politico. “I think Democrats who bought into the ploy suffered for it.” Mr. Tobias went on to argue that winning Democrats were those who focused on “economic justice” and unlimited access to procedures that end the lives of unborn children.
In New York City, it seems that the progressive telling is winning the day. Just this week, the City Council passed a law forbidding landlords from declining to rent to potential tenants with criminal backgrounds, marching ahead with its light hand on public safety.

Perhaps the most helpful tool Republican candidates had going for them in New York were redrawn district maps that took away Democrats’ advantage for the first time in over a decade, a phenomenon that was a direct result of Democrats’ overconfidence after years of full control in the state.
As occurs after every census, the maps of congressional districts were redrawn according to population shifts. In every state, whichever party is in control uses this process to shift the board in their favor by trying to neutralize as many of opposite party’s voters as possible, either packing them into single districts or cutting them up in pieces so they will be outnumbered.

Gerrymandering has been roundly criticized as subverting the democratic process by creating few competitive races and making it harder for moderate politicians to win, but it is part and parcel of American politics.

New York’s ruling Democrats however, confident that a vanquished state GOP could not stop them, tried taking this to a new level.

A map drawn and approved of by Democratic legislators would have limited the Congressional districts where Republicans have an advantage to four, leaving the state’s other 22 solidly Democrat. Some of their moves were undeniably egregious. All of Staten Island, a sparsely populated heavily Republican area, was thrown in with a strip of southern Brooklyn that included densely populated and solidly progressive neighborhoods like Park Slope. Another district cut through Nassau, Suffolk, Queens, Bronx and Westchester counties.

The plan was challenged in court. While judges are usually hesitant to involve themselves in the re-districting process, the court found the Democrats’ map so unabashedly gerrymandered that they threw it out and directed a special appointed master to create a new one. The result was a map so fairly drawn that it did not even give much regard to incumbents, who are usually the first priority of gerrymanderers. One of the most publicized results was a district that pitted Jerold Nadler against Cathryn Maloney in Upper Manhattan.

The court-ordered map, which forced a delay in primary elections, yielded 16 districts with a Democratic advantage, five with a GOP advantage, and five highly competitive ones.

“There was a way to draw those lines to make more Democratic seats and withstand a legal challenge. By overshooting, we’re now going to lose two or three more seats than we need to,” Democratic strategist Peter Kauffmann told Politico ahead of elections.

Republicans carried the majority of the competitive areas and flipped more than one where Democrats were favored, yielding their 11-seat New York congressional caucus for the 118th Congress.
Driven by a crime surge and Democrats’ overzealousness map drawing, there are those questioning how much staying power the GOP’s upswing will have in a state still overwhelmingly dominated by Democratic voters.

Don Levy, director of Siena College Research Institute, which conducts polling in the state, told the Wall Street Journal that “I’m hesitant to say that New York is turning to a lighter shade of blue.”
Yet, a closer look at victorious Republicans might challenge that assessment. Nearly all winners in competitive races were moderates reminiscent of the Republicans who carved out a niche in the state for decades, stressing quality of life issues like taxes and public safety, but light on social conservatism that defines much of the national GOP brand. They also signal more openness to cooperate with Democrats on locally tinged issues like this past year’s bipartisan infrastructure package, which won support from New York GOP incumbents like Staten Island’s Nicole Malliotakis, who easily won reelection. Such candidates, like their predecessors, could have more staying power than skeptics assume.
“I’d like to think our victory can prove that there is a way to maintain one’s conservative ideology while also working across the aisle to benefit Long Islanders,” said Republican Nick LaLota, who is slated to succeed Mr. Zeldin in his district.

This brand also helps disrupt the narrative pushed against them by Democrats that all Republicans are part of an “ultra-MAGA” party.

Mr. Langworthy, the party chair, who is now on his way to Washington, was optimistic about the future of GOP’s comeback in New York.

“This is the largest delegation New York has sent to the Republican conference in 20 years,” he told the Washington Examiner. “So, I think we have a very critical seat at the table … and I think it’s going to put some pressure on our delegation to continue to elect the good people we’ve brought here in this election.”

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