The Five Takeaways to Unlocking the Key Lessons of the 2022 Election Returns in NYS
What are the real takeaways from the results of New York State’s elections, which surprised so many pundits and pols? My breakdown of those voting returns lead me to 5 very different conclusions than have been rolling off the tongues of pundits. My contrarian take could be off the mark, but let me make my case.
1. Governor Hochul’s re-election was fairly secure throughout, but a landslide was never in the cards.
Unlike presidential politics, which tend to follow an 8 year cycle, where victory shifts from one party to the other after two terms, unless a presidency hits the proverbial political rocks towards the end of a first term (e.g., Carter, Bush 41 or Trump), in NYS the partisan gubernatorial cycle has tended to have a longer pendulum running for 3-5 terms (e.g., Smith/ FDR/ Lehman, Dewey, Rockefeller, Carey/Mario Cuomo, Pataki and now Spitzer/Andrew Cuomo/ Kathy Hochul). Consequently, when a party holding the office of Governor enjoys that kind of long run, it tends to face a tough re-election race for Governor either leading into its third term (e.g., Rockefeller in 1966) or after 4-5 terms (e.g., Lehman beating Dewey by only 1.4% in 1938, in New York’s first four year gubernatorial term, after 14 years of uninterrupted two year terms; and Mario Cuomo losing to George Pataki in 1994, after 5 Democratic terms).
Compounding that difficulty factor facing Hochul’s Democrats, was this year’s conjunction of rising crime and rising inflation, which always proves a toxic brew for New York Democrats. For example in 1978, Governor Carey had a rocky road to winning his second term in the midst of his unpopular opposition to the death penalty exploding in the middle of a gas price/shortage crisis, which took his 800,000 vote landslide margin from 1974 down to only 273,000 votes (a 5.73% victory margin) in his 1978 re-election.
This year, with incomplete returns, Hochul won by 327,000 votes for a 5.8% margin. Not to mention that since few really knew Lee Zeldin at the beginning of this race, the potential of any serious Republican candidate was severely underestimated by most of the pols and pundits.
Another factor in the expectations game was Kathy Hochul’s skill in terms of both governing (e.g., securing a productive budget, with sharp and sure reactions to the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the tragic racial massacre at the Buffalo supermarket) and politics (generating high early poll ratings and fundraising) in the wake of Andrew Cuomo’s forced resignation, camouflaged both her vulnerability and that of the Democratic party in this election.
Finally, pundits mistakenly see New York as a liberal state, when in fact NYS is at root a deep blue Democratic state, more than it is a liberal state, requiring Democrats to both unite the Democratic base and carry independents to post large statewide margins. Moreover, that hard reality of New York being a Democratic but not a liberal state, is never more clear than when crime and inflation are on the rise.
I would argue that Hochul’s campaign had a sound strategy for her re-election (i.e., carry the metropolitan suburban clusters which drive the vote, but don’t dominate the land mass of Upstate, thereby eroding the Republican base, while carrying NYC by over 2-1, and trying to shave the Suburban edge against an opponent like Zeldin, who hails from Suffolk County on LI).
Meanwhile, the Hochul campaign was tactically slow to build armor around the Democrats’ inherent vulnerability on crime and economic uncertainty. Consequently, once Zeldin caught fire attacking on crime in October when events (e.g., the tragic slaying this past October in Queens of the 61 year old EMT supervisor who lived on Long Island) were underscored and accelerated in terms of political impact by the Ron Lauder-Ed Cox-led $12 million in Independent Expenditure (IE) TV ads targeting crime, the gubernatorial race tightened.
Alternatively, the Zeldin campaign had tactical energy, but a fatally flawed strategy. I say this because Zeldin’s campaign did not craft a strategy to hit all three regional tipping points, which a Republican must simultaneously hit to win a two candidate race for Governor (i.e., carry Upstate by 20%, the Suburbs by a 15% margin and get the same share of the vote from NYC that NYC casts as a percentage of the statewide vote). Not to mention, Zeldin was one of those candidates for statewide office this year who proved that, while the cloak of Trump was essential to winning a Republican primary, that cloak turned into a shroud in the general election for the MAGA candidate wrapped inside.
Instead of pursuing a complete three region strategy, Zeldin focused on Long Island and trying to get above 30% of the vote from NYC. But this two region approach Zeldin pursued—which just presumed that Zeldin would streak Upstate—came up short, even though there was a regional turnout pattern favorable to a Republican candidate. Despite NYC casting 37% of the early vote as a share of the statewide total, the preliminary data shows that after all the votes were in: 45% of the vote came from Upstate, 29% from NYC (back to the 2010 and 2014 level but down significantly from the full third of the Statewide vote coming from NYC in 2018) and 26% from the Suburbs.
That Suburban share, if it holds when the final count is certified, will be the highest regional share the Suburbs have ever cast. (For over three decades the Suburban vote has never below a 23% share nor above 25%, and usually the Suburbs cast 24% of the statewide vote.) Thus, if the 26% share coming from the Suburbs holds, that will be a significant achievement.
Ironically, when the votes were counted, the only regional tipping point target for victory by a Republican that Zeldin hit was from NYC. (He received 30% of the vote from NYC.) Upstate, Governor Hochul was able to carry the larger counties of Erie, Monroe, Onondaga, Albany, Ulster and Tompkins, as well as Columbia, while carrying Schenectady by an eyelash, as well as narrowly losing Dutchess county. I believe that only the Hochul-Delgado ticket (with both hailing from Upstate) could have done this well Upstate.
The net result was that Zeldin had only about half the margin he needed from Upstate. Instead of building the foundation of his campaign around Upstate’s 45% of the vote, which is imperative for any successful Republican candidate, Zeldin spent a disproportionate amount of time in pursuit of his Holy Grail of seeking 35% of the vote from NYC.
In brief, while Zeldin spent most of his time getting the bare minimum he needed from NYC, Zeldin still lost NYC by over a 2-1 margin, but left the larger region of Upstate predominantly unaddressed in terms of his campaign’s attention. There is a reason that Long Island candidates rarely win statewide. With the exception of former Senator Al D’Amato (a Republican) and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (a Democrat), who both put the time in to both learn and master Upstate politics, most Long Islanders do not take the time to understand Upstate’s political rhythms and rhymes.
Let me provide but one example: Downstate, if a candidate gets on the local TV news with a press event, their message is literally on TV from Montauk to Monticello. But Upstate has at least 11 different local media markets. Therefore, to reach the 42-45% of voters from Upstate, a campaign must learn to layer in its free media message assiduously and with patience (as the early Mario Cuomo, George Pataki, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton have done to great success).
The contrast between Zeldin foolishly treating Upstate as a hop-in, hop-out region—versus a Tom DiNapoli leading the Democratic ticket for the third straight time because he cultivates Upstate’s support for the entire four years before he seeks re-election—is not only stark, but it derives from DiNapoli’s disciplined cultivation of all of Upstate’s regions. Schumer has also been a master of this layered outreach Upstate, repeatedly visiting all of the state’s 62 counties every year.
As an aside, while Zeldin’s approach fell short, Zeldin did help his party form beachheads among Asian, Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish, as well as Hispanic voters in NYC. In the absence of exit polls, it is too early to draw hard conclusions, but it appears that Zeldin lost Hispanics 70 – 30% rather than the recent 4-1 margins for Republicans among Hispanics. Zeldin cultivated Pentecostal voters, much as Astorino did in 2014, making inroads (i.e., Andrew Cuomo carried Hispanics by 4-1 margins in 2010 and 2018, but by 71-29% against Astorino according to 2014 exit polls) and Zeldin may have narrowly carried Asian voters. Zeldin’s outreach to Hispanic and Asian voters was commendable, but his results were far below the firm majority of Asian voters and support from Hispanics in the mid 40’s that Bloomberg and Pataki were able to achieve in 2001 and 2002.
Meanwhile, Hochul appears to have swept the Black vote by a near record margin percentage-wise for a non-Black candidate. This was not just partisan loyalty, but a frontlash reaction to what many Black voters obviously felt was a backlash campaign run by Zeldin and on behalf of Zeldin, by the Lauder powered IE’s.
Then in the Suburbs, Zeldin did carry his home county of Suffolk by 17%, but the Nassau Democrats led by Jay Jacobs cut Zeldin’s edge in Nassau to 11%, slowing Zeldin down, just enough to allow Hochul’s Westchester margin of 19% to bring Zeldin’s overall margin from the Suburbs under the necessary 15% edge Zeldin needed, even though he carried Rockland by 12%.
In the end, the Zeldin campaign, fortified by the huge Lauder IE spending targeting crime, supplemented by near messianic—not to mention saturation—coverage day-in and day-out in the New Pork Post (replicating the Post’s efforts on behalf of Koch for Mayor in 1977 and Pataki for Governor in 1994), showed great energy and drive, but Zeldin’s campaign could not overcome its strategic blind spot leading to its underperformance Upstate, allowing NYC’s margin for Hochul to prevail over Zeldin’s edge outside of NYC (mirroring almost exactly how Carey beat another Suffolk Republican Perry Duryea in 1978).
Nor did the Zeldin campaign address the lesson it should have from the primary, where he carried Suffolk by a much larger margin than he carried Nassau County, while losing badly in Westchester and the northern suburbs to Astorino. To reach his overall need to carry the Suburbs by 15%, Zeldin needed to come off of LI with over a 15% lead and to cut the margin by which they lost in Westchester to under 10% and carry Rockland by 16-18%, not the 12% margin Zeldin reached. Yet for all the criticism Jay Jacobs has been taking, he succeeded in slowing Zeldin down in Nassau, while Westchester tackled Zeldin’s shot of scoring a Touchdown in the Suburbs. Simply put, the Zeldin campaign never seemed to understand that Suffolk County was far too narrow a foundation upon which to build a statewide victory.
Let me be clear, I don’t expect this analysis to erase the conventional wisdom which portrays Hochul as a weak candidate. But I do ask those reading this piece to consider my assessment that Governor Hochul proved a more formidable candidate than she is being given credit for. But even if her campaign had been more adept and tactically proactive at building armor on crime before Zeldin and Lauder’s TV ad onslaught struck, and in generating a larger turnout from NYC, I still think like Lehman in 1938, Rockefeller in 1966 and Carey in 1978, this re-election was not going to be a landslide.
A tactically sharper effort by Hochul’s campaign team might have gotten her margin up to 9-12%, but I don’t think that, with crime and inflation surging, a 15% plus blowout was in the cards. Alternatively, given Zeldin’s strategically fatal flaw of pursuing an incomplete two region rather than a three region strategy, I do not think the outcome was ever seriously in doubt, for in the end, only Hochul’s margin was actually in doubt.
2. New York’s Democrats need an antidote to Ron Lauder’s Daddy Warbucks and the New York Post’s coverage on crime if they are to regain their footing.
This is now the third campaign cycle in a row that Ron Lauder has played a major role weaponizing crime as an issue against Democrats by targeting bail reform, through ever more spending via IE PAC’s. In 2020, Lauder’s TV ads helped take down two Democratic Senators, Monica Martinez in Suffolk and Jen Metzger in the mid-Hudson (though both were elected this year, Martinez returns to the Senate and Metzger will now be the County Executive of Ulster County). Last year, Lauder’s ads put even more pelts on his belt by powering the defeat of two Democratic candidates for District Attorney in both Suffolk and Nassau counties and derivatively defeating Laura Curran’s re-election as County Executive in Nassau County.
Last year, Lauder also bankrolled through Housekeeping contributions to the Conservative Party, TV ads and mailers that defeated constitutional amendments on reapportionment and absentee ballots. More than a few well-respected election lawyers think those Housekeeping contributions violated the election law, but that funding mechanism was never challenged in court.
But this year Ron Lauder outdid himself and spent $12 million on statewide TV ads weaponizing bail reform as the cause of crime. There is now an investigation looming on whether the Zeldin campaign violated the rules against coordination with Lauder backed IE’s, but if those allegations are proven, that will probably strike the intermediaries and perhaps the Zeldin campaign with penalties, rather than Lauder himself. But what is undeniable is that Ron Lauder has become the Daddy Warbucks of the Republican-Conservative coalition in NYS.
If the Democratic coalition is to succeed long term, they will need an effective political response on crime. Now Democrats being Democrats, they will try to personalize it against Lauder. Moreover, many minority-elected officials and community activists feel Lauder’s ads have played the race card.
Meanwhile, the Democrats’ real response needs to be delivering results on a crime-fighting strategy, which at once cuts crime and inculcates a return to a feeling of security and safety on the streets—not just of NYC, but in Rochester, Albany and Buffalo, to name just a few communities around the state where the rise in crime has affected the public’s sense of safety. Without results on fighting crime, further criminal justice reforms are a pipe dream for reformers and it will probably create a climate for a Republican revival in New York State, beginning in 2026.
Nor will the damage be limited to crime, for some of those who joined in Lauder’s IE investments were pro-fracking investors and those opposing the march to renewable energy, supported by a broad cross section of New Yorkers. Was it mere coincidence that Zeldin began advocating for fracking, making it a centerpiece of his debate strategy and his presentation to the Times editorial board, after Ed Cox became Lauder’s de facto IE partner building contributions from those supporting fracking? Ed Cox has long been a fervent advocate of fracking.
Back to crime, Bill Bratton was right when he observed upon beginning his second stint as the Police Commissioner, that NYC’s status as the safest big city in America was a de facto “ peace dividend.” Progressives never fully internalized that what opened the door to their political successes (DeBlasio’s election and the picking up of legislative seats in Western Queens, Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley) was that the public’s sense of safety in NYC blocked the Republicans from wielding crime as a political bludgeon. That in turn opened the door to needed criminal justice reforms.
But with crime rising, that once open door is shutting. Crime puts the political prospects of Democrats in danger, just as occurred in the 1993-1994 campaigns which brought Giuliani in as Mayor and Pataki into power as Governor. So the Democrats have a clear choice: are they going to reclaim that peace dividend on crime via delivering results, or are they going to lecture fearful New Yorkers of all races and ethnicities that they are wrong to be afraid? The latter option is a losing political strategy.
Let’s go back to the source of the current political conundrum facing Democrats. The bail reform statue that originally passed, which was necessary to address the reality that too many arrested who are in in poverty stayed in jail pending trial, not because they were guilty, but because they were poor. But the original bail reform statute did not contain, as every other state who enacted this reform did, an exception to allow judges to impose bail on those who were considered dangerous. That decision by those who passed and signed that original bill into law opened the door to what Lauder and others have achieved, persuading just about 60% of New Yorkers to think bail reform is the cause of the surge in crime. That is neither true and therefore may not be fair, but it is today’s political reality.
It was also foreseeable that the nation’s leading conservative tabloid, the New York Post, would have a field day with this, and when crime surged in the wake of the pandemic, for many reasons—especially the randomness of the violence on the subways, plaguing Asian and Hispanic blue collar workers in particular—that became cannon fodder for Ron Lauder’s millions in IE expenditures to change the political dynamic in NYS.
In NYS, the power of the New York Post to define the campaign debate should never be discounted. Those of us who lived through the campaigns of 1977, 1982 and 1994 were not surprised. Those too young to remember those campaigns may have been surprised by the potency of the Post’s veritable political jihad against Kathy Hochul, but the impact of the Post’s coverage assault, once launched, should never have been discounted by consultants or the pundits.
It did not seem to matter that Hochul and the Democrats had amended the bail reform law a second time to increase the range of judicial discretion. Nor were the Democratic campaigns—at all levels—nearly proactive enough in projecting a crime-fighting message that combined safety and justice.
In a state with Ron Lauder and the New York Post on the beat, looking for more Democratic pelts on their proverbial belt, learning how to fight back with a resonating message on crime is not a luxury for Democrats, it is a necessity. And unless the Democrats learn how to fight and win this battle, not only will they lose more elections, but they will forfeit the ability to advance the deracialized community policing approach that we so desperately need to move forward as a society.
Nor is this a white backlash issue, as Mayor Adams’ election proved in 2021 and the loss of support for Democrats at the edges in the Hispanic and Asian neighborhoods attests. Working-class and older minority Democrats are very concerned about crime and the derivative loss of feeling secure in terms of personal safety. Nor should Democrats should take comfort, as Jen Psaki recently argued on MSNBC, from trying to argue to suburban voters that crime in the suburbs is low, because what those suburban voters see on the local TV news in Shirley and Nyack as well as Colonie and Pittsford of crime in NYC, Albany and Rochester will not be persuaded.
So Democrats, my advice is to craft a winning results-based message on crime or Ron Lauder’s playing of the race card will continue to gain ground, perhaps allowing the Republicans to prevail in 2026, when Democrats will be seeking a 6th consecutive gubernatorial term.
3. Neither Party owns Long Island politically.
The new conventional wisdom is quickly becoming that the Republicans own Long Island again politically. However, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans own the loyalties of Long Island’s voters. Long Island’s voters are pretty evenly divided in terms of partisan registration, when the Conservative and WFP parties are factored in, which leaves a growing share of the vote cast by unaffiliated or independent voters as the balance of power in elections on Long Island.
Moreover, there are both a higher share of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans (what we used to call Rockefeller Republicans), as well as true Independents (who do not actually lean to one party or the other) on Long island than elsewhere in NYS, which leaves swing voters in Suffolk and Nassau counties with a much higher share of the vote than in most other suburban regions, either Upstate or nationally.
The recent history of Long Island’s voting patterns are revealing. In 2005, 2006 and 2008, Long Island swung sharply against the Republicans in local state and national elections (against the spendthrift local GOP corruption, an unpopular Iraq war and an economic collapse nationally). Then in 2009, 2010 and 2013, Long Island swung against Democrats (except for Cuomo because they considered Carl Paladino a wild man), worried about local taxes and mistrusting Obamacare. In 2012, Long Island divided relatively equally between Democrats and Republicans. But in 2014 and 2016, LI continued to swing away from the Democrats, before bouncing back in 2018 and 2020, repelled by Trump’s excesses, to sharply oppose Republican candidates. Yet, in 2021 and 2022 LI struck back sharply against Democrats over crime and economic uncertainty.
To some this looks like Long Island’s voters are unable to make up their minds acting as weathervane. Instead, I think what marks Long Island’s voting pattern is a decidedly rational approach. The swing voters who drive the outcome on Long Island, find things they like and dislike in both parties. This has left most Long Islanders voting against rather than for, whichever party is ticking them off more in any given year. That leaves Long Island as the ultimate balance wheel of New York politics.
Until either the Democrats or the GOP offers Long Island’s voters what they really want: a pragmatic approach that nurtures both economic and personal security, while avoiding ideological extremes on social and cultural issues, then Long Island’s voters will continue to keep pulling the rug out from under both parties depending upon events.
Given all of this, anyone in elected office on Long Island, or needing Long Island’s votes in a statewide election, ought proceed on the assumption that the old political adage governs: there are no final victories from Glen Cove in Nassau to Shirley in Suffolk.
4. This year’s bitter defeat for Democrats in New York’s House races could become a Phoenix rising from the ashes in 2024.
The roots of the Democratic losses in the House races here in NYS are varied and deep. The frustration level is at a fever pitch for Democrats because, had New York’s Democrats carried three more seats from NYS, it is likely that the Democrats would have held their House majority. That frustration is generating a near-record level of recriminations. Let’s try to see what is really going on.
I think Howard Wolfson was astute when he referred to the Democrat’s overreach on reapportionment as the “original sin” of these defeats. But so too was decision of two proven Democratic vote producers on LI, Tom Suozzi and Kathleen Rice, not to seek re-election. The hidden story nationally of the now-close race for control of the House is that Democratic incumbents ran much stronger in the swing districts than where new Democratic candidates had to contest hard races in open seats.
This is not an attack on Robert Zimmerman and Laura Gillen. They tried hard to hold the seats in LI’s 3rd and 4th CD’s. They literally got brought down by the riptide on crime that dominated the political current and hence the riverbed underneath the political waters on LI. But while we will never know for sure, I think given name recognition and resource advantages, both Suozzi and Rice would have had a solid chance to hold these seats.
It is also a little rich to see Senator Alessandra Biaggi call for the ouster of the leadership of the Democratic State committee, citing in large part frustration with the results of the House races, when one of the losses was Sean Patrick Maloney in the 17th CD, who had to endure a primary from Biaggi. That primary not only forced Maloney to spend resources in that primary (which Biaggi lost 2-1), but Biaggi’s advocacy of no compromise on bail reform helped to make the GOP’s case that the Democrats were soft on crime.
Maloney wound up losing to Lawler based upon the vote from Rockland, which Maloney lost by 10%, when in most years he would have lost Rockland by no more than 4-5%, with an outside chance to narrowly carry Rockland’s vote. So the crime issue that cost Hochul in the Suburbs (she lost Rockland by 12% to Zeldin), also hurt Maloney. But that primary by Biaggi did not help and may have cost Maloney a little over a single point that might have enabled him to eke out a narrow win in very tough political seas.
On the other hand, I would argue the razor thin Democratic losses in the 19th CD by Josh Riley to Marc Molinaro (the mixed suburban, exurban and rural district running from the Mid- Hudson in the East to Ithaca’s Tompkins county in the West) and the apparent victory of Brandon Williams the Republican over Francis Conole the Democrat in the 22nd (Onondaga, Oneida, Madison and Oswego counties), should be seen as Democratic advances that came up just short.
Nor can these defeats be blamed on Kathy Hochul. For Hochul comfortably carried or swept several key counties in the 19th CD (Columbia, Ulster and Tompkins counties) and carried Onondaga County by a comfortable margin. Not to mention that Hochul’s strong showing in sweeping Ulster county and only narrowly losing Dutchess county was of real help to Ryan, winning in the 18th CD by the razor thin margin of 2,000 votes (0.8%).
In fact, I think Riley was on track to win until the point of the spear for Molinaro’s negative ads became a TV ad containing grainy video of AOC, calling for an alternative to locking people up. So the Republican thrust to save Molinaro, became linking Riley to what they depicted as the AOC and the WFP on approach to crime fighting. I would not blame AOC or the WFP for Riley losing, but if I followed AOC’s approach to blaming Jay Jacobs for the House losses, I would affix the blame to her for Riley losing by 2.2%. I think Democrats would be wise not to play the blame game.
Let me suggest an alternative for Democrats to not let their understandable frustration with losing these 4 House races limit future opportunities. In retrospect, 2022 was a year where neither Democrats nor Republicans were going to build an enduring majority in the House. So instead of fighting amongst themselves, the Democrats would be wise to see the most recent House races not as the end of the game, but only as the end of the first half of a longer political game. The next enduring majority in the House is likely to be forged in the 2024 elections. So my advice to Democrats is to sublimate your frustration over this year’s losses into the resolve necessary to hold the 18th CD, to win back the seats in the 3rd, 4th and 17th CD’s and to finish the job of winning in the 19th and 22nd CD’s in 2024.
Let’s say for sake of argument that the price of the Freedom Caucus supporting Kevin McCarthy becomes letting the Freedom Caucus bring an entitlement reform bill to the floor for a vote in the House (i.e., a bill to cut social Security and Medicare), and new members like Santos or Williams vote in favor of that bill, which would be dead on arrival in a Senate led by Chuck Schumer. What is the reaction to that vote likely to be on LI, the Mid-Hudson and Central NY where these 5 seats are located? This could become an issue not just for those foolish enough to vote for cutting Social Security and Medicaid, but one which defines Republicans in multiple swing regions of NYS.
We have seen that LI for example is capable of flipping on a dime, if the party they just supported in one year’s elections, triggers their frustration reflex in the next election. So the Democrats would be wise not to wallow in the negativity attending these lost House races, and instead seek to make 2024 the year that the phoenix rises from the ashes, leading the way for an enduring Democratic majority in the House come January of 2025.
5. Governor Hochul’s Leadership Challenge—leading the Democrats away from a circular firing squad.
There are two models for how to handle one of these trap year third term to fifth term contests for the same party holding the Governorship elections that I described at the top of this piece. For that is exactly the challenge the Hochul-led Democrats faced in 2022.
After his bruising 1966 third term victory, Rockefeller’s Republicans looked like a spent force. Governor Rockefeller faced a divided coalition, after the then-newly minted Conservative party posted 510,000 votes for a third party candidate Paul Adams. Somehow, Rockefeller re-infused his administration and his party with energy around issues revolving around the environment, higher education, the right to choose and fighting crime. Then in 1970, Rockefeller was elected to a fourth term with his largest margin ever (just over 700,000 votes and a 12% margin).
Contrast that with what faced Mario Cuomo after his large margin (32%) 1990 victory over Pierre Rinfret on the Republican line, but Cuomo got just over 50% in support (53.2%), in a three way race, where the Conservative Party posted 20% of the vote (827,000 votes for Herb London). Instead of seeing the danger signals (the atrophy in NYC turnout and Cuomo’s declining standing Upstate and on Long Island from 1986), Cuomo’s Democrats ignored the warning signs that turned into Pataki’s victory in 1994.
The lesson to be learned for Governor Hochul and the Democrats is quite clear. Will they refresh Democratic energy (e.g., among highly educated younger women and Black voters) and address their problems in the Suburbs and in pockets of NYC (nurturing support from blue collar men of all races and ethnic backgrounds, Hispanic, Asian and Hasidic as well as Orthodox voters), while continuing to cultivate support from Upstate’s suburban clusters? Or will Democrats continue to let those turnout muscles atrophy and the problems on crime turn into political sclerosis?
The onus will fall on the Governor herself. The difference between Rockefeller after 1966 and Cuomo after 1990, came down to Nelson Rockefeller never wanting to be vulnerable again in a re-election, whereas Mario Cuomo preferred to ignore to his growing political liabilities in his third term. Truth be told, Nelson Rockefeller loved politics, whereas Mario Cuomo secretly loathed politics and preferred governing.
Moreover, most parties in power prefer to take the path of least resistance. Rockefeller literally shook his party out of their lethargy in his third term, whereas Cuomo preferred to ignore his political challenges, namely the looming challenge if the Republican-Conservative coalition could be reformed on crime and taxes, but behind a candidate like Pataki, given the flexibility to be pro-choice and pro-environment.
Right now things look pretty bleak for the Democrats. They are doing post-election what Democrats love to do: they are forming a circular firing squad rather than confronting the dual challenge of finding a resonating and clear message on crime, while regenerating their turnout muscles in NYC. The only cure for this self-indulgent lethargy will come from gubernatorial leadership.
What does this mean in terms of brass tacks politics? Simply put, is Governor Hochul willing to provide the leadership to craft a policy backed by a diverse coalition on crime that unites suburban and urban voters, behind being tough on crime (and achieving results), while promoting criminal justice reforms that work (and that can be defended persuasively when Ron Lauder and the New York Post attack it)? In addition, will Governor Hochul be able to enact progressive goals on housing, health care, the environment, education and higher education that simultaneously gleans support from suburban voters, Upstate as well as Downstate?
Easy to say, tougher to achieve. To succeed, Governor Hochul will have to meld skillful policy formulation with the governing discipline to get things accomplished, while challenging her party’s reflexes on crime and forcing the Republicans into cul de sacs of opposition that limit their ability to grow in to a majority by 2026. In effect, Governor Hochul will have to meld governing with politics, in a way where her poll ratings radiate public support so that she becomes the only real hope the Democrats have to prevail (melding substance with the Bully Pulpit).
The alternative to that is the slow decent of Democrats into a deadly combination of internal political divisions and hardening of the arteries when it comes to projecting a winning message to swing voters. Nor can the Democrats count on the Republicans continuing to make the strategic mistakes Zeldin did in the 2022 campaign.
Zeldin’s tactical energy could become a precursor to a Pataki-like figure, who in 2026 will forge a three region strategy that can triumph over Democratic divisions, should they become fracture points for the larger Democratic coalition.
In the end, both Democrats and Republicans in New York State, coming out of 2022, will be tested by the admonishment of John Greenleaf Whittier: “Of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these it might have been.” Will it be Democrats or Republicans who make their own regret-free luck going forward into the 2024 House races and the 2026 gubernatorial race here in New York State? Only time and the reactions of voters will provide the answers.
Bruce N. Gyory is a Democratic strategist who serves as a Senior Advisor at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP, who used to teach a course in national and state voting trends as an adjunct professor of political science at the University at Albany SUNY.