The state is holding a series of competitive primaries in heavily Democratic districts on Tuesday, including a stacking of a dozen candidates for an open seat in Manhattan and Brooklyn and an incumbent vs. incumbent battle between two veteran committee chairmen. But primary voters will essentially have the final say in these contests. In several purple-tinged seats, they will only finalize matchups in races Republicans hope to contest in the fall in the Hudson Valley and Long Island.
It’s an uncomfortable situation that many New York Democrats believe is avoidable. The party used its control of the state government to thwart a bipartisan commission tasked with charting new policy lines, instead adopting a map that could have given Democrats 22 of the state’s 26 districts. (After 2020, the delegation split was 19 Democrats to 8 Republicans. The state is expected to lose a district due to redistribution after the 2020 census.) But in one of the most significant developments in the redistricting cycle , a Democratic-leaning court knocked the card low as an illegal partisan gerrymander and imposed its own.
This court-drawn map, coupled with Biden’s still low approval ratings and worrisome historical trends, has Democrats across the state bracing for impact, especially in any seat Biden carries within double digits in 2020.
At a campaign event here in the final days of his primary campaign for an open seat on Long Island, Democratic candidate Robert Zimmerman devoted part of his stump speech to imploring voters to take his race seriously.
“Biden won it by 8 percentage points. Now most Democrats think we have a lock, but by all analysis this is a tossup congressional district,” Zimmerman told supporters. gathered in the backyard of a sprawling home in a Nassau County village.”Republicans know it’s a toss-up. We have to get that across as well. We have to get our own people to understand that.”
Problem on the island
Zimmerman’s home base is causing particular anxiety for some Democrats — and, they say, not enough anxiety for others who take the bluest parts of Long Island for granted.
Last year’s local elections on Long Island ended in a rout for Democrats, with the GOP clinching a slew of offices in Nassau and Suffolk counties after their candidates hammered Democrats over crime rates and new state bail reform laws. Now the Democratic representatives. Tom Suozzi and Kathleen Rice free up House seats there, giving Republicans a chance to capitalize on their gains without having to face well-funded incumbents.
Both districts lean toward the Democrats, and Rice’s seat, which President Joe Biden carried by nearly 15 points, would be particularly tough for Republicans to win. But after 2021, some in the party are sounding the alarm. They warn the national party not to ignore any district or get sidetracked trying to unseat the Republican representative. Lee Zeldinopen seat of or one held by GOP Rep. Andre Garbarino.
“Democrats ignore Long Island at their peril,” Rice said, adding that she had given the same advice to her party’s campaign officials. “We need to invest in maintaining the seats we have and be realistic about the seats we can take or Long Island could go completely red.”
Zimmerman, a longtime DNC member who boasts backing from Hillary Clinton and Israel, who once held the seat, is running for Suozzi District. This primary also includes Josh Lafazan, a Nassau County lawmaker with Suozzi backing and a spendthrift super PAC with ties to the cryptocurrency industry. Republicans are on track to nominate George Santos, a rare-profile financier who says Democrats will have a hard time calling him a typical Republican.
“I’m a free thinker,” he said in an interview outside an Indian Independence Day event in Queens. “I’m Latino, I’m gay, I’m Jewish. I do what I want. I don’t fit into the boxes they want me to fit into.
Santos lost to Suozzi in 2020 but has come closer to other GOP candidates in recent years. He has taken definite steps to reach out to various communities in the district: At an “India Day” celebration earlier this month, attendees stopped him to shake his hand or ask for pictures.
“I would probably be one of your most unique Republicans in the House in 2023,” Santos said.
Still, Democrats say they will have no problem linking him to extreme elements of the party, noting that he attended pro-Trump rallies in DC around Jan. 6 and that in 2020 he said to The Island Now that he supported a federal ban on abortion. (In an interview with POLITICO, he said he wouldn’t support a ban and didn’t commit to whether he would support Trump if he ran in 2024.)
In Rice District, Republicans coalesced around Hempstead Councilman Anthony D’Esposito, a former NYPD officer. The seat heavily favors the Democrats but could be a sticking point if Biden’s numbers don’t pick up significantly.
If that happens, Republicans happily predict they could win several seats without losing any of their incumbents.
“I think there will be at least 10 to 12, if not more, Republicans in the New York congressional delegation in January,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin, who left his Long Island seat to run for the post of governor.
The other hotspot for Democrats is in the Hudson Valley, which stretches from the outskirts of the city to upstate. The court-imposed map drew three districts on it that Biden carried by 10 points or less.
The area is also home to the last competitive midterms special election, as Democrat Antonio Delgado vacated his seat to serve as lieutenant governor. Democrat Pat Ryan and Republican Marc Molinaro are locked in an uphill battle to serve out the rest of his term in a Tuesday race that could split either way.
Still, no matter who wins the special, Molinaro and Ryan are both running for full terms — albeit in different districts, thanks to another quirk of state redistricting. Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive and a long-sought GOP congressional recruit, will face farmer Jamie Cheney or attorney Josh Riley in what will likely be the most competitive seat in the state this fall.
Ryan, meanwhile, will face Republican State Deputy Colin Schmitt in a different district to the south, which Biden would have carried by 9 points.
Democrats in those races have campaigned for abortion access — but in a sign of the times, they’re also willing to criticize Biden.
At a campaign event in Woodstock, Riley expressed outrage that the Biden administration had granted licenses to China to manufacture new battery technologies developed with US taxpayer dollars.
“It pisses me off to the core that we’re not creating those jobs here in the United States and here in upstate New York,” he said. “I have a lot of concerns about the Biden administration allowing this.”
In an interview, Ryan declined to say if he would support Biden if he ran in 2024 and said as an Army veteran he had issues with the pullout from Afghanistan. But he also highly praised Biden’s policy agenda, from the infrastructure bill to the cut inflation act.
During a final game in the Hudson Valley, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will have to defend a seat that Biden won by 10 points. He faces a fiery primary challenge from progressive Sen. Alessandra Biaggi and the winner of that contest will likely face Republican Michael Lawler, another state lawmaker who ousted a Democratic incumbent in 2020.
National Republicans have already booked television time in the Maloney District, relishing the chance to distract the leader of the House Democrats’ campaign arm with his own re-election.
In an interview, Maloney said he was confident of winning his primary. Describing his campaign situation as placing him in a “player-coach” role, he said his record of winning tough general elections was the reason his colleagues trusted him to lead the DCCC.
“I didn’t win five races as a gay man in a Trump neighborhood hoping for the best or taking things for granted,” he said. “We will work hard, we assume it will be competitive, but we will win.”
Maloney insisted that the GOP’s plans for big wins in New York were over the top, especially given the competitive nature of the special election for Delgado’s seat and the uproar over abortion rights.
“Republicans have been overconfident and arrogant. And the whole world has changed in the last two months,” he said, adding, “They assume there will be a backlash or a wave. But I think they know it’s getting away every day.
Democrats have a strong potential target in the state: the redesigned seat of the incumbent representative. John Katko (RN.Y.). Republicans have a primary there that will help determine whether or not they can win that seat, which Biden would have won by 8 points in 2020.
Still, Republican outside groups are brimming with cash and determined to spend some of it attacking New York. That means Democrats may have to spend valuable resources consolidating targeted districts they’d rather redirect elsewhere — and likely would have directed elsewhere under the Democrats’ original redistricting map.
“New York Democrats have overplayed their hand,” said Dan Conston, chairman of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House’s largest GOP super PAC. “Some of the best pickup opportunities nationwide are in New York and we will be serious about racing across the state in a meaningful way.”