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Democrats regroup after unexpected Election Day losses

Gov. Kathy Hochul shakes hands with two women eating lunch.
File Photo
Gov. Kathy Hochul has work to do before the 2022 gubernatorial election.

Democrats in New York have been absorbing the impact of some unexpected losses on Election Night. They are debating what, if anything, they should do differently next year when several important races, including the contest for governor, occur. Republicans, meanwhile, see new hope for winning statewide offices in 2022.

The Virginia governor’s race was expected to be close, and in the end, the Republican candidate won. But the contest for governor in neighboring New Jersey, where incumbent Phil Murphy barely eked out a win, was not expected to be a nail biter.

And here in New York, on Long Island, which had been steadily becoming bluer over the past decade, Republicans took the county executive and district attorneys seats in Nassau, and the district attorney post in Suffolk County. GOP candidates also won four New York City council seats.

“It was an incredible election,” said State Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy.

Langworthy also led a successful campaign to defeat three ballot propositions on expanding voter access and changing the redistricting process.

Democratic lawmakers, who approved the ballot proposals, spent little money and took few actions to promote them.

Langworthy predicts that in 2022, the GOP will have its best chance of winning state offices since 1994, when a Republican sweep included the then little known George Pataki defeating Mario Cuomo for governor.

“There’s an awful lot of victories to point to here,” said Langworthy, who said the wins “set the table” for 2022.

Republican fervor

Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin is the candidate favored by Republican Party leaders. Others are also running, including former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, and Andrew Giuliani, son of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City Mayor and lawyer for former President Donald Trump.

State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs attributes his party’s set backs to a national trend. He says it’s a reaction to President Joe Biden’s first year in office and that it's similar to Democratic defeats in 2009, after Barack Obama was elected President.

Jacobs, speaking on public radio station WCNY’s “The Capitol Pressroom,” says Republicans were also more motivated than Democrats to come to the polls.

“We came off an election (in 2020), where Democrats were all charged up to beat Donald Trump. They succeeded,” Jacobs said. “So that motivator is gone.”

Jacobs says since then, gas prices have risen to over $4.00 a gallon, there are worries about inflation, and supply chain issues lead to shortages of goods on store shelves.

Jacobs says Democrats are discouraged over their leaders in Washington getting bogged down over disagreements on building infrastructure and expanding social programs. He says Republicans are still frustrated over the results of 2020 elections, and were more likely to vote.

Moving to the center

Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi, a moderate Democrat, says the GOP was effective this election cycle at “weaponizing” divisive issues like a backlash to bail reform, as crime rates climbed. He believes that was a key factor in the Republican wins in his home region.

Suozzi, who is considering a run for governor, says the philosophy of the far left is a losing message that is “destroying” the Democratic Party, and that Democrats need to run on an agenda that appeals to the wide swath of voters who are in the middle.

“Focus on pocketbook and kitchen table issues and real life issues that affect people’s lives,” said Rep. Suozzi, who is considering a run for governor on the Democratic party line. “And not this ideological based extremism.”

Suozzi, was one of the few Democrats statewide who backed Buffalo incumbent, and moderate Democrat Mayor Byron Brown. Brown, in another sign that voters might prefer middle-of-the-road policies instead of progressive ones, ran a successful write-in campaign to beat India Walton, a Democratic Socialist. Walton had defeated Brown in an upset win in the June Democratic primary.

Hochul's 2022 battle

Governor Kathy Hochul, throughout her career in elected office has been a moderate Democrat. But since taking office in August after the resignation of former Governor Andrew Cuomo, she has embraced many of the programs championed by progressives in her party, including a COVID-19 pandemic relief fund for undocumented immigrants and parole reforms.

Hochul, speaking at a virtual forum sponsored by City and State magazine and AARP, defended the criminal justice changes. She says she does not think policies like bail reform are related to the recent crime spike, which she attributes to economic and psychological hardships caused by the pandemic.

“Society was seen to be very fragile, and as a result there has been more crime in the streets,” Hochul said. “What I’m doing to make sure we treat people fairly does not have a correlation between the two.”

Hochul, who is running for election to her job, will need to thread the needle between progressive and moderate voters to win the June primary.

She will face the stiffest competition from state Attorney General Tish James, a popular progressive Democrat. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who are both considering runs, are also to the left of the mainstream of their party.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will have to compete in a general election, where independent voters have increasing sway over the outcome.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.