With the results of this year’s midterm elections now mostly set in stone for New York, Democrats around the state have begun the bitter process of trying to understand what went wrong.
Throughout much of the rest of the country, Democratic candidates defied expectations that inflation and a heated debate over crime would pave the way for Republican victories across the board.
That did not come to pass. Dems still have a shot at holding onto the Senate, and while it’s almost certain they’ll lose control of the House, the margin of loss there is not nearly as bad as it could have been.
In New York State though, Democrats bowed to defeat in almost every competitive congressional race and were forced in the end to avert catastrophe in the governor’s race — a contest that months ago was viewed as a fait accompli for their incumbent.
Gov. Hochul ultimately managed to maintain her hold on power, but only after running a campaign that’s been roundly criticized as flat-footed and incompetent by members of her own party.
She’s acknowledged that there’s room for improvement.
“We always look to improve, always. And I’m going to continue to rebuild the party, make it stronger,” she said Thursday. “I’ve been on the job one year, and now I have four years to build the power up so it becomes the powerhouse that the New York Democratic Party should be.”
Hochul’s objectively bad campaign wasn’t the only factor that made winning in New York difficult not only for herself, but also for down-ballot Dems who did not benefit from her relatively poor performance.
Spikes in crime in New York City fed fear in the suburbs. Inflation — an issue none of the candidates have much control over — created a general feeling of unhappiness among voters. And the new congressional map — a result of redistricting and the subject of a court battle — also likely contributed to Democrats’ problems at the polls.
“Redistricting was the original sin. It set the stage for the failure to come,” said Howard Wolfson, a Democratic political strategist and advisor to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “The Democrats were at a disadvantage by not having a better map.”
Who’s to blame for that is still subject to debate.
The redistricting process, which determines how congressional and state legislative districts are drawn, was ultimately decided in court after a judge invalidated maps created by the state legislature, which is controlled by Democrats.
Those maps heavily favored Democrats, so much so that the judge determined they could not be implemented.
Some political observers fault former Gov. Andrew Cuomo for that, arguing that the judges he selected for the bench were far too conservative. Others have laid blame at the feet of Senate Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, who helped head a redistricting task force.
As many in the party now call for the head of Jay Jacobs, the state party’s political chief, others have pointed to Gianaris and the role he played in redistricting.
“He led it,” said Elizabeth Crowley, a former Queens Councilwomen who ran for state Senate in a redrawn district in the August primary. “This is going to have a disastrous effect throughout the country because of his leadership. There’s a lesson here. People who led the redistricting effort should understand that they didn’t follow the rule of the law, and Michael Gianaris, who led the process, is to blame.”
Gianaris blamed the judges who were involved in the process, but also noted that the takeaway for Dems from Tuesday’s election is that there “was a performance problem, not a district problem.”
Many political observers believe much of that blame should be borne by Hochul and her campaign.
Longtime Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf described the campaign she ran as “terrible” and a “disgrace” and criticized the consultants she hired to run it, saying they were too concerned with making a buck.
The campaign spent approximately $50 million and, according to the state Board of Elections, it is on track to win by about 5% of the vote — in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about two to one.
“It was garbage. They did not use her strengths. They intellectually talked about her strengths, but they did not show it,” he said. “It was a money-making thing. It wasn’t about helping this woman who was working hard and breaking her back.”
Other political consultants, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, honed in on the fact that many of the consultants Hochul tapped came from out of state and were ignorant of the political landscape’s particulars, especially in the five boroughs.
This became clear with the team’s messaging on abortion. While it remains a huge concern among voters throughout the state, it resonates less in some districts than others, one source noted.
“Her biggest problem was that her campaign was run by out-of-towners. The learning curve was so steep,” that source said. “The campaign was being phoned in from out of state. If you have a team that’s from the city, when they were running abortion ads, they could say that’s not what we’re hearing on the ground. There was a lack of understanding of who the actual New York State and New York City voter is.”
The source shared Sheinkopf’s view that Hochul’s campaign “bled her.”
“It was offensive what they did,” the source said.
When it came time to bring in heavy-hitting surrogates like Vice President Kamala Harris and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton late in the race, the campaign held the rally in a basement auditorium at Barnard College, where many of the students are also from out of town and registered to vote in other parts of the country.
Many have observed that the get-out-the-vote operation on the ground was paltry.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who ran against Hochul in the primary, described outreach in voter-rich Brooklyn, his home borough, as anemic.
“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “I didn’t get a piece of mail.”
[ Uneven election night for New York Democrats draws out divisions within party ]
When asked whether or not Hochul’s team reached out to mend fences with him after the primary, Williams, who has a track record of moving votes in Brooklyn, wouldn’t directly respond, saying only that he didn’t think “the party did what it should have done after the primary.”
“It was across the board,” he said. “It was pretty frustrating to watch.”
Arguably the most important issue this election cycle in New York State was crime. Hochul’s opponent Rep. Lee Zeldin hammered away on it almost constantly, as did Republicans running for Congress. The strategy proved effective.
One Democrat who also has had a lot to say about crime is Mayor Adams, who focused much of his campaign last year on law and order issues.
In reading the tea leaves of the midterms, progressives have criticized the mayor for putting to much emphasis on the issue and playing into bread-and-butter Republican talking points.
One comment he made in particular still resonates with many of them.
“I have never in my professional career — I have never witnessed crime at this level,” the former NYPD captain said in May.
[ Mayor Adams blames progressives for N.Y. midterm losses, angering fellow Democrats: ‘They’re at fault’ ]
Given that crime stats were far higher during the 80′s and 90′s when Adams served as a cop, the remark is clearly an exaggeration — and just one of many comments that progressives feel undermined Hochul and other Dems running in tight races.
Bill Neidhardt, who served as former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s press secretary, called such rhetoric irresponsible and a misuse of one of a mayor’s greatest assets — the bully pulpit.
“Your biggest tool is that you can drive media,” Neidhardt said. “It’s either that he’s thoughtless and doesn’t realize how much his words make a difference, or he wants to boost Zeldin.”
Adams, who has been critical of bail reform — also a divisive issue this election cycle- has not backed down on his rhetoric post-election.
“I’m trying to state that we have a criminal justice system that we need to dismantle every piece of that feeds the many rivers of violence,” he said on Thursday. “From the time of the last 10 days, no one came to me and said, ‘Eric, can you please stop talking about the criminal justice problem?’ Because I will continue to talk about that until we get it right.”
With Chris Sommerfeldt
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