New York Democrats Face Unexpected Reckoning as Poll Numbers Turn Sour

Posted on Monday, October 24, 2022
by Daniel Berman
New York

AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman

Just over a year since the once-rising star of Andrew Cuomo came crashing back to earth, New York Democrats face a potentially even more devastating setback in November’s midterm elections. Acting Governor Kathy Hochul, who succeeded Cuomo, suddenly finds herself in a close race, one RealClearPolitics has classified as a tossup. Polling averages now show her leading her opponent, Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, by 6 points. Elsewhere in the Empire State, races once thought safe for Democrats are also in play.

To understand just how unexpected and revolutionary this change is, no Republican candidate for Governor, Senator, or President has won more than 41 percent of the vote in New York since 2002. The highest statewide total for any Republican since that year was 46.26 percent in the Comptroller race by businessman Harry Wilson in 2010, who nevertheless lost by 4.5 points. Down-ballot offices have been less partisan, though Democrats have done well in that category also.

Year President Governor Senator
2006 N/A 65.3%-27.1% D 67%-31% D
2008 62.88%-36.23% D N/A N/A
2010 N/A 63%-33.5% D 66.3%-32.2% D
2012 63.35%-35.15% D N/A 72.2%-26.3%
2014 N/A 54.3%-40.3% D N/A
2016 59.01%-36.52% D N/A 70.6%-27.2% D
2018 N/A 59.62%-36.21% D 67%-33% D
2020 60.87%-37.74% N/A N/A

Zeldin is a solid candidate, having defeated a Democrat incumbent in 2014 and then held the seat for three more elections in a district that voted for Barack Obama twice. He is also benefiting from hailing from Long Island, a shift from the upstate candidates Republicans have generally fielded over the past decade. This may be aiding him in making inroads both with suburban voters and some working-class voters in New York City itself. But most of all, Zeldin is benefiting from serious failings of governance, both at the state level and within New York City, which are driving voter anger toward Democrats.

At the state level, Democrats are still being rocked by Cuomo’s scandals. But even before his disgrace made national news, Cuomo was a deeply controversial figure. His administration was perceived as cronyist bordering on corrupt, and not just by Republicans, but even by many liberal and left-wing activists. Cuomo had, for example, brought in Andy Byford, a British export who had overseen the London Underground subway system, to try and modernize New York’s transit authority, only to declare war upon him when he actually tried to do his job. Cuomo was deeply unpopular upstate, and did worse in both of his subsequent reelections, including in what was otherwise a Democratic landslide year in 2018, than he did when he first won election in 2010.

Kathy Hochul, who served as Cuomo’s Lieutenant Governor, was both a target and an inheritor of his approach to governance. An upstate county official who narrowly won and then lost a heavily Republican seat in the U.S. House, Cuomo seems to have picked her to appeal simultaneously to upstate and female voters, while ensuring his deputy was too politically weak to challenge him. This allowed Cuomo to pose as a “defender of upstate interests” when Hochul was challenged, as she was in the 2018 primary by New York City-based politicians (she won 53 percent to 47 percent) while also making moves to dispose of her when scandals overtook him.

Hochul therefore not only entered office with a limited political base, but also with many of Cuomo’s enemies, including New York City politicians and black and Hispanic figures who felt that, as a white upstate woman on an all-white ticket, she was symbolic of their exclusion from politics. These forces initially had coalesced around State Attorney General Letitia James, who had led investigations into Cuomo and seemed poised to challenge him–and subsequently Hochul when she became Governor. But Hochul was able to rally national support, especially from the leadership team of Schumer and Pelosi, and staved off James’ challenge.  Yet the intra-party jockeying for the nomination left bad blood. James insisted her campaign had been sabotaged and she had been forced out of the race. As a result, Hochul is now suffering a palpable lack of support from the New York City political machine, especially its racial and ethnic components who are angry about the fact that James, a left-wing, African-American woman who had spearheaded legal assaults on both Cuomo and Donald Trump, was passed over.

Those political machines have issues of their own. The decline of New York City was a major story of the last two decades, ever since Rudy Giuliani left office. The decay was slow during the first two terms of Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, while he still remained a Republican and engaged with the role. After Bloomberg left the GOP, his gaze drifted into esoteric directions, with a focus on “quality of life” shifting from providing effective policing and public transport to campaigns against sugary beverages and fast food.

The decline turned into a near collapse under Bloomberg’s successor, Bill DeBlasio, who combined every woke cause imaginable with self- aggrandizement on a level almost equal to Andrew Cuomo. DeBlasio’s son Dante wrote an op-ed in 2019 to explain how he had been warned to beware of the police by his father, who was their boss, which might say something about the problem at the heart of New York City’s government in those years.

Crime skyrocketed under DeBlasio, and the COVID-19 response was a disaster, which Cuomo, apparently recognizing that the state was only big enough for one egotistical incompetent executive with delusions of grandeur, pinned on the mayor. In fact, Cuomo, locked in a personal feud with DeBlasio, almost seemed to welcome the collapse of New York City into near anarchy as vindication against his rival.

Both Cuomo and DeBlasio are gone, the former replaced by Hochul, the latter by Eric Adams, an African American former police officer, but high hopes for the two have been largely disappointed. Both admittedly inherited bad situations, and both can perhaps be termed marginal improvements. But in addition to the divisions their ascension caused, it appears malice on the part of Cuomo and DeBlasio has been replaced by mere incompetence on the part of Hochul and Adams.

Adams has been an eccentric, shilling for veganism, natural remedies, and cryptocurrency, having pledged to take his paycheck in bitcoin shortly before its price collapsed. Hochul, meanwhile, was fully complicit in an effort by Democrats to gerrymander New York’s congressional and legislative districts, which she proudly allowed to be branded the “Hochulmander,” only to see it struck down by New York’s Democrat-appointee-dominated Appeals Court. She then got into a futile conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court over gun control, pushing laws only to see them struck down. Going into this fall, she has little to show for any of her efforts. She is too upstate for New York City’s Democratic machine, too close to Cuomo for upstate residents, and too much of a failure, on everything from gerrymandering to gun control, for liberals or Democrat partisans to feel she is of much use.

That explains the yawning enthusiasm gap which is giving Zeldin an opening to win. Every major Democrat constituency in the state feels demoralized. In turn, Republicans and those open to at least considering voting for a Republican are motivated to turn-out across the state. In fact, what is most evident is how unpolarized the election is. A recent poll by a pollster who worked for both Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg found a 50 percent to 44 percent lead for Hochul, but showed her leading in New York City by only 59 percent to 33 percent, a far cry from the 76 percent Joe Biden managed in the city.

Lest these results be considered an outlier, they were echoed by those Quinnipiac University found in an October 18th Poll in which Hochul led by a 59%-37% in New York City, while up only 4%  50% to 46%, statewide.

What is impressive about the race, and perhaps may be Hochul’s saving grace, is that, unlike Kate Brown in Oregon, she is not hated. That same Quinnipiac Poll which found her leading Zeldin by 50%-46% found her job approval rating underwater, but only by 46%-49%, while a even the recent Marist University poll which gave her the largest lead over the last month (10 percent among registered voters and 8 percent among likely voters) nevertheless found her favorability barely positive, with 46 percent viewing her favorably to only 43 percent unfavorably. These are far from great numbers, but Hochul is not dragging down New York State Democrats. On the contrary, her personal favorability is actually helping her. Biden’s approval rating in Quinnipiac, at 47%-50%, is almost identical to Hochul’s in a state he won by 23%.

Hochul is, it appears, being dragged down by the general condition of the state. No better evidence exists than a recent Trafalgar poll which had Hochul up 2 percent, but the ostensible #resistance hero and Trump nemesis Letitia James only up 1 percent in her reelection race for Attorney General. This probably means, as longtime Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen told the New York Post, that Democrats are trying to make the entire race about abortion. Even in New York, partisanship and Trump persecution aren’t moving voters.

Instead, crime is. That is no surprise. Donald Trump is off in Florida, whereas crime is right there at home, literally in the case of Republican Zeldin, whose family suffered a drive-by shooting outside of their house when his twin daughters were home. It is no wonder that not just Hochul but also James are the targets of voter frustration. Voters might understand why James would prefer to spend all her time investigating Trump, but they want her prosecuting violent crime in their own communities.

Hochul and James are not the only New York Democrats set to risk the electorate’s wrath this November. Even if Hochul and James were to win by an underwhelming margin, perhaps 52 percent to 46 percent, that would, thanks to failure of the “Hochulmander,” spell doom for a number of New York House Democrats.

Democrats controlled 19 of New York’s 27 districts coming out of the 2020 election, down from 21 after 2018. While New York lost one seat for a total of 26 after the census, Democrats had planned to use redistricting to win as many as 22 on the new maps, while limiting the Republicans to four. Instead, the courts assigned a special master to draw maps. The maps that emerged are still Democrat leaning due to the nature of the state, but nonetheless give Republicans opportunities to pick up seats in bad years for Democrats. Donald Trump received over 45 percent of the vote in nine of the new seats. If Republicans were to gain 45 percent of the vote this year statewide – up just 7 points from Trump’s 38 percent in 2020 – it would mean the GOP could carry up to 11 seats, transforming a 19-8 Democratic lead into a 15-11 one.

Democrats would like to talk about how the tide is turning, and they are making plays in states like Ohio and North Carolina in their U.S. Senate contests. What is happening in Oregon and now New York belies that bravado. Democrats are learning the hard way that even in their safest states, voters will not care about abstractions like “threats to democracy” if they cannot trust that their children are safe and their state is not being run into the ground.

Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.