early and often

Democrats Need a Miracle to Keep the House. It Might Be on Long Island.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

When Democrats in the New York legislature tried and failed to gerrymander new House seats earlier this year, the implications were clear. Democrat-drawn maps could have offered a crucial cushion for the Democrats’ thin House majority this fall, especially as the Republican Party geared up for what was forecasted to be a dominating midterm performance. The party in power traditionally loses seats in the midterms, and there was little reason to think, with stubbornly high inflation and Joe Biden’s unpopularity, that 2022 would be any different.

The good news for Democrats is that the fall of Roe v. Wade has energized voters and given them new reasons to vote Democrat. Even in states like New York where abortion rights are protected, the issue is very much on the ballot and anti-choice Republicans are on the defensive. Just ask Marc Molinaro, who lost a special election he was supposed to win in the Hudson Valley. Pat Ryan, the victorious Democratic candidate, attributed the upset to his staunch support for abortion rights.

All of this energy pulsing through the party has obscured, for a moment at least, what could have been: Democrats in New York running in friendly seats they designed themselves. After court challenges tossed their maps out, an independent special master drew far more neutral seats, accounting for competitiveness and compactness over any kind of quest to keep a national majority. From a good government perspective, the special master did what was best. But Democratic insiders, all these months later, are still smarting over the lost seats. Even with abortion at the top of the electoral agenda, Democrats are still expected to lose their House majority, which stands at just four seats. If they do keep it somehow, it will be because they overperformed in New York, winning key swing seats and pulling off an upset or two.

The first obvious target would be in the city where Republican Nicole Malliotakis is seeking a second term in a district that looks very much like her old one, after Democrats tried and failed to drag the Staten Island and southern Brooklyn-based seat into Park Slope. Malliotakis is in a rematch against Max Rose, the centrist Democrat she unseated in 2020, and few on either side of the aisle expect her to lose. Donald Trump carried the new 11th Congressional District with 53 percent of the vote in 2020. For Rose to win, he would have to reproduce the conditions of his 2018 victory over another Republican: Running up an enormous score in Brooklyn and narrowly carrying Staten Island. Four years ago, the anti-Trump blue wave allowed him to do just that. It’s entirely unclear such conditions can manifest in November.

Instead, the keys to victory will likely be in the Hudson Valley and Long Island, where a whopping three House seats are open. Republican Lee Zeldin, who represents the First District on the eastern end of the island, is making a long-shot bid for governor. Democrat Tom Suozzi, the congressman for the Third District on Nassau County’s North Shore, already ran in a primary for governor and lost. Kathleen Rice, a centrist Democrat like Suozzi, has chosen to retire from the Fourth District, roping in Nassau County’s South Shore.

Democrats Robert Zimmerman and Laura Gillen, running in the Third and Fourth Districts respectively, are favored to win. After Republicans crushed Democrats in Nassau County last year, riding to victory on a message of decrying bail reform laws and Covid restrictions, they will now have to explain to moderate suburban voters why they are the party of ending Roe. Still, Republicans George Santos and Anthony D’Esposito should benefit at least somewhat from the expected midterm backlash, especially if gas prices rise again. Democrats would rather not work so hard to keep these seats.

The First District, spanning Suffolk County, has been elusive for Democrats since Zeldin first won in 2014, defeating a veteran Democrat in a GOP wave year. In 2020, Biden and Trump split the district, a blend of ardent MAGA voters, affluent liberals, and a growing nonwhite population that leans Democratic. Democrat Bridget Fleming is up against Republican Nick LaLota in a race that is still expected to benefit the GOP more, given the typical midterm factors. Roe, of course, is the wildcare here. A particularly strong turnout for Democrats could give Fleming a shot.

North of New York City, three other House races will be pivotal. After surviving a primary from progressive Alessandra Biaggi, Sean Patrick Maloney, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will have to defeat Michael Lawler, a Republican assemblyman, in a Rockland and Ulster County district Biden barely carried. A strong fundraiser with a history of winning swing seats, Maloney is the favorite in the new 17th, but Lawler is expected to be very competitive. If economic conditions deteriorate in the fall, Lawler could pull off an upset.

Pat Ryan, the new congressman, is now running in the redrawn 18th District against Republican Colin Schmitt. Ryan’s incumbency advantage and proven ability to carry a Hudson Valley district not dissimilar to the one he is now running in makes him at least a slight favorite against Schmitt, a Republican assemblyman. Ryan’s strength in the area calls to mind that of Antonio Delgado, the Democrat held down a swing seat for two terms before becoming Kathy Hochul’s lieutenant governor. Biden won the new 18th by about 8 points, lending Ryan an edge.

And finally, there’s the redrawn 19th, where Marc Molinaro, who Ryan defeated, is now running. Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, is very much a moderate Republican in the mold of those that have traditionally performed well in the Hudson Valley. The district includes Dutchess and Tompkins Counties, and would have been Molinaro’s for the taking had he not lost to Ryan or Roe not been overturned. Biden only won 52 percent of the vote there, making it GOP territory in a typical midterm year. But Democrat Josh Riley, an Ithaca attorney, has a fighting chance in a race that may have been lopsided months ago but won’t be any longer.

The Democrats Need New York to Save Their Majority