Just a month before November’s critical midterm elections, New York has emerged from a haywire redistricting cycle as perhaps the most consequential congressional battleground in the country, and Democrats are mired in an increasingly costly fight just to hold their ground.
All told, nine of New York’s 26 seats — from the tip of Long Island to the banks of the Hudson River here in Poughkeepsie — are in play, more than any state but California.
For Democrats, the uncertainty is particularly jarring: Just 10 months ago, party leaders, who controlled the once-in-a-decade redistricting process in the state, optimistically predicted that new district lines could safeguard Democrats and imperil as many as five Republican seats, allowing them to add key blocks to their national firewall.
That, to put it gently, is not how things seem to be turning out.
Now, even Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, who once hoped New York would ease his burden as chairman of House Democrats’ campaign arm, is facing a viable challenge, with internal polls from both parties showing a dead heat in a suburban area President Biden won by 10 points.
“I watch this stuff closely, and I feel I need a neck brace,” said Steve Israel, the former Long Island congressman who held Mr. Maloney’s job during the 2012 and 2014 elections. “Midterms this cycle are the most unpredictable and fluctuating I’ve ever seen, but no state has demonstrated that more than New York.”
The reversal of fortune in New York, where there are more than twice as many registered Democrats than Republicans, is all the more striking given the broader national backdrop. In a year when many states used redistricting to minimize the number of truly competitive districts, New York is virtually alone in moving toward more competition, after an attempted Democratic gerrymander backfired and state courts intervened at the 11th hour to draw more neutral lines.
It also underscores just how daunting a task Democrats face as they seek to hold on to the slimmest of majorities nationally in the face of Mr. Biden’s middling approval numbers, high inflation and a restless electorate that believes the state and the nation are headed in the wrong direction.
Whereas the Democrats’ initial plan positioned them to reasonably pick up three seats and protect existing ones, the party now finds itself trying to guard five of the most competitive districts in New York across parts of Nassau and Westchester Counties and in the small towns of the Hudson Valley. Republicans, by comparison, are defending only a single Syracuse-area seat that is considered at real risk of flipping, and three other seats that look increasingly safe, including a coveted New York City swing seat encompassing Staten Island and a portion of South Brooklyn.
Democrats still have reasons for optimism. An upset in an August special election in the Hudson Valley showed that outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision to end a national right to an abortion is motivating the party’s otherwise sluggish base and keeping most races here closer than once expected. Mr. Biden’s numbers have stabilized. And the retirement of John Katko, a Republican moderate, has given Democrats the best shot in years at flipping the Syracuse-area seat that has been their white whale, election after election.
Yet, if the election were held today, public and private polling and interviews with strategists responsible for allocating budgets for races across the country suggest that Republicans, not Democrats, are now best positioned to flip seats in New York. The Republican Party needs to net just five seats nationally to win control.
“We could build the majority just in New York State alone,” said Representative Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 House Republican whose North Country district is considered safe. That might have been different, she added, but when it came time to redistrict, Democrats “got greedy and overreached.”
Almost all of the contests are playing out in diverse, affluent suburbs and working-class bedroom communities that encircle New York City, where the fault lines mirror those animating close contests from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Nevada — only magnified to Gotham size.
No state, arguably, is more identified with protecting abortion rights, the heart of Democrats’ campaign message about Republican extremism — or with the soaring costs of living and elevated crime that Republicans believe will motivate their base and win back suburban swing voters who abandoned them during the Trump presidency.
The political landscape has led to something of a headache for political strategists trying to predict voting patterns and could still lead to surprises on election night.
“The top-of-mind issues in 2022 are scrambling the traditional assessment of districts,” said Isaac Goldberg, a Democratic consultant working on several of the races. “You have traditionally Republican voters saying they will never vote for a pro-life candidate, and you have traditional Democratic voters uninterested in the national Democratic brand.”
Nowhere is the fight more vivid than here in the politically volatile Hudson Valley, where Republicans are making serious runs at three seats held by Democrats.
As summer turns to an early fall, their candidates have hammered Mr. Maloney and his Democratic counterparts on the airwaves for the rising cost of gasoline and home heating oil and have repeatedly cited fears about a deterioration in public safety in the state’s largest cities since state lawmakers liberalized bail laws three years ago.
“The Democrats control everything in Washington and everything in Albany. They can’t blame anyone else,” said Mike Lawler, a Republican assemblyman and political operative whose challenge to Mr. Maloney in the 17th District has attracted millions of dollars in eager outside help from Republicans.
“It’s hard to defend a 41-year high on inflation,” Mr. Lawler, 36, added. “It’s hard to defend a $5 gallon of gas.”
Just up the river in Newburgh, Colin Schmitt, another Republican assemblyman in his 30s, said that he was certain his race for an open seat in the 18th District would turn on the sentiment he regularly hears from voters: “We’re not in a good place.” Marcus Molinaro, a Republican county executive running against Josh Riley, a first-time candidate who spent much of his career outside New York, has used similar points in the 19th District.
Democrats, meanwhile, are putting millions of dollars in television advertising behind a bet that abortion rights — and fears about Republicans attacks on election integrity — will be a powerful enough motivator to outweigh economic concerns and national discontent with the party brand.
“Here it is in a nutshell,” Mr. Maloney said, summing up the approach unifying most of his party. “The MAGA movement, which took away your reproductive freedom and is threatening your voting rights and your democracy, is too extreme for voters in the suburbs, and that is going to cost them seats.”
Democratic hopes were buoyed over the summer when Pat Ryan, the former Ulster County executive, defeated Mr. Molinaro in a special election for an expiring district. Mr. Ryan, a 40-year-old West Point graduate, said voters’ furor over protecting abortion rights was just as strong six weeks after he was celebrated by Democrats as the face of their comeback.
“No poll ever showed us winning,” he said, after finishing a rainy walk to raise awareness for at-risk veterans here in Poughkeepsie recently.
“I’m not saying the exact conditions are replicable,” said Mr. Ryan, who is now running in the 18th District against Mr. Schmitt. But he asserted that the Democrats could hold the House “if we bring that fight and energy and remind people we are pro-freedom, pro-safety and pro-democracy.”
For now, Mr. Ryan’s race appears to be a rare bright spot for Democrats: Nearly every other contest trends toward Republicans.
A burst of media coverage and campaign cash (a staggering $2.25 million between July and last week) followed Mr. Ryan’s special election victory. Now, some Democratic campaign officials involved in the races said he may even be better positioned than Mr. Maloney, who is used to running hard races but is largely campaigning this fall on turf he has not previously represented, or Mr. Riley, who faces a much less friendly electorate.
In Nassau County on Long Island, Democrats are working hard to hold back a Republican resurgence in a pair of districts where two of their seasoned incumbents, Thomas R. Suozzi and Kathleen Rice, are retiring. Both seats favor Democrats by a handful of points, but Republicans swept local elections there last year, campaigning on public safety and soaring living costs.
Strategists in both parties working on the races say they are tighter than initially expected, particularly on the South Shore, where Republicans recruited a strong candidate, Anthony D’Esposito, a former New York City police detective, to run against Laura Gillen in the Fourth District.
While the neighboring Third District contains fewer Democrats, the party is more confident it will protect that seat after Republicans nominated a candidate, George Santos, who has compared abortion rights to legalized slavery and, in a video obtained last month by Newsday, claimed to have cut a check to help the legal defense of several Jan. 6 rioters.
At the same time, Republicans are increasingly confident the same issues of crime and inflation will help them hold two closely divided seats further east on Long Island, currently represented by Andrew Garbarino and Lee Zeldin, who is running for governor. Mr. Biden narrowly carried the Zeldin district two years ago, but spirited Democratic challengers are facing stiff headwinds.
In New York City, Democrats are still ostensibly trying to knock off Representative Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who voted to overturn the 2020 election results and opposes abortion rights. But privately, national Democratic strategists have concluded there is almost no viable path to victory for their candidate, the former congressman Max Rose, in the Trump-leaning Staten Island 11th District after Democrats’ attempted gerrymander was tossed out by the courts.
That has left the party with only one prime pickup opportunity of its own, in the Syracuse area where Mr. Katko is retiring.
Democrats may have caught a break: Brandon Williams, a Trump-aligned first-time candidate who has never lived within the district, became the Republican nominee despite an effort by super PACs aligned with Republican leaders in Washington, who spent close to $1 million to push their preferred candidate.
The Democrat, Francis Conole, is now openly modeling himself as a Democratic version of Mr. Katko, and the actual Mr. Katko has vowed to stay neutral. “Let the voters decide,” he said in an interview. Mr. Williams’s campaign did not agree to an interview.
Even so, a rare Siena College House poll focused on the district released last week showed Mr. Williams with a five-point lead, though neither candidate was well known to voters.
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