Published in partnership with The American Prospect.
New York Democrats did not expect to have to sweat the governor’s race between incumbent Kathy Hochul and her Republican challenger Lee Zeldin. But the unusually tight race, amid low interest from Democrats, threatens the party’s grip on Albany and is now seeping into congressional campaigns, where Democrats are suddenly having to defend safe seats with massive ad buys.
It’s a bitter turn for the party that was expected to enjoy an ironclad, fully gerrymandered, 25-to-4 New York map for the House of Representatives, strengthening Democratic numbers and potentially saving the majority. That was before several Andrew Cuomo–appointed judges threw out that map, and a demographer created as many as nine swing seats, which are more vulnerable to a lackluster gubernatorial campaign.
“Voters are lethargic,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, director of New York Working Families Party, a progressive third–party organization. She told the Prospect that Democrats “need a stronger and sharper closing argument” on the high cost of living.
“We have not, in commonsense language, explained how the policies that we have advocated in Washington and Albany benefit the average person,” said Westchester County Executive George Latimer, a Democrat. Beyond the cyclical ebb and flow of voter enthusiasm, Latimer said, he thinks a muddled economic message could mar Democratic turnout.
A new Slingshot Strategies poll found a major enthusiasm gap in the governor’s race. Zeldin leads by two points among voters most likely to turn out. Hochul is winning on abortion, while Zeldin is winning on crime. (Voters care more about crime; Hochul is frantically trying to assemble a rebuttal argument on that issue.) But they’re both dropping the ball on voters’ other top priority. The poll found that voters are “primed for a missing economic message.”
In paid communications, Zeldin and affiliated independent expenditures have focused on public safety, while Hochul has emphasized extremism.
“Both campaigns seem to believe this election is being fought on other political terrain, which our polling (and others) would contradict,” said Evan Roth Smith of Slingshot Strategies. Outside of an ad spree by the Hotel Trades Council, Smith said, neither campaign has run TV, mail, digital, or radio ads centered on the economy, Smith said.
Emerson College polling also found that the economy is the top issue for more than one–third of voters, followed by “threats to democracy,” crime, and abortion access.
Despite Hochul’s uncomfortably tight race, the governor is still favored to win; the Slingshot poll has her up by six points, which is in line with other polling. Zeldin has likely made as many gains as possible, while Hochul has more room to grow, with working- and middle-class Black and Hispanic voters concentrated in New York City. The Democratic Governors Association has formed a super PAC on Hochul’s behalf, and President Obama cut a radio ad for her.
But the tight top-of-the-ticket race is rubbing off on the state’s House districts. House Majority PAC, the top super PAC for House Democrats, is rushing aid to Representative Joe Morelle, the congressperson from Rochester, with a $275,000 ad buy this week, Politico reported. Former Rochester police chief La’Ron Singletary, his Republican opponent, has heavily emphasized rising crime. Morelle has outspent Singletary 5-to-1.
The fact that both parties are shoveling money into a district that voted for Biden by a 20-point margin shows the depth of Democrats’ predicament. Yet recent polling on the urgency of economic messaging does not appear to have prompted Morelle’s team to put pocketbook issues front and center.
In an interview, a spokesperson for Morelle said the top issues in the race are reproductive rights, combating gun violence, Social Security, and Medicare. Pressed on the economy, he added that Morelle has fought to lower costs on prescription drugs, end surprise medical billing, and make the Child Tax Credit permanent. He declined to say whether state and national Democrats should be doing more to underscore bread-and-butter issues.
State Senator Anna Kaplan also faces a tight race in Long Island’s Nassau County, where Lee Zeldin has generated enthusiasm for Republicans.
Almost the opposite dynamic, with similar consequences, is playing out in California, where Governor Gavin Newsom is running such a hands-off race against a no-name Republican challenger — his ads focus on key ballot initiatives — that strategists are worried his vacancy could depress turnout in contested House seats.
In some parts of New York, said Evan Roth Smith of Slingshot, “competitive House races in New York are intense and high-profile enough to generate their own turnout patterns, and we are more likely to see the effect of that moving up the ballot to the governor’s race, rather than the other way around.”
But even in the case of Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the powerful chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who pushed out progressive Representative Mondaire Jones to run in a safer district, Democrats are forking money into races that should be safe bets. The Cook Political Report has rated the Maloney seat a toss-up; he would be the first chair of a congressional campaign committee to lose in 40 years. President Clinton recently headlined a campaign event for Maloney.
Maloney’s new district is the kind of suburban seat that is susceptible to Republican fearmongering on crime, without the counterweight of a message for how Democrats are fighting for voters’ financial security.
Progressive groups now say that in order to give down–ballot Democrats a fighting chance, Hochul should match Zeldin’s populist economic messaging with equally popular support for taxing the rich and raising the minimum wage.
“Hochul’s record has been as a fairly conservative Democrat; closely tied to big business and big banks,” said Mike Kink, director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition, a labor-community group. “She’s had one legislative session, and did a hell of a lot more to provide subsidies to super-rich corporations than make corporations pay what they owe.”
That’s not to say an absent economic message is the only reason for Hochul’s lackluster performance.
Former Governor Andrew Cuomo carried the Democratic vote during his time in office, mobilizing turnout with his personal popularity even as he allowed party organizing infrastructure to erode.
“We traditionally have big-personality politicians — Andrew Cuomo, Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch, Chuck Schumer — who can break through the New York City media market. But sometimes, you get people — and the governor’s an example of this — who are regular-sized people. People look at that and say they haven’t ginned up the enthusiasm,” Latimer said.
Cuomo’s cult of personality is a tough act to follow. Hochul, the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate from western New York in more than 100 years, has focused on projecting stability and competence since she took office, Nnaemeka said, rather than rebuilding the political muscle of the Democratic Party. But that may shortchange Democrats around the state.
“Cuomo benefitted from 10 years of a stronghold on a party that was propped up to perfectly reflect his priorities and vision,” Nnaemeka said. “Hochul is not benefiting either from a party that she created in her image, or from a party pipeline that she built.”