The senior Democratic strategist certainly wasn’t happy about his assessment, and he swore he wasn’t being pessimistic, just realistic, about the imminent midterms. “You have a bad economy, you have high inflation, and it’s an off-year election, so this is what happens. We’re going to fucking get shellacked. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, though.” A pause, followed by a prediction delivered with such understatement that its shock value, if it comes true next week, would have been easy to miss: “Oh, and Kathy Hochul is gonna lose.”
Other Republican victories would likely have larger immediate policy impact—if the GOP nets five House seats, it will regain a majority and rev up impeachment hearings; if Mehmet Oz, J.D. Vance, and Herschel Walker triumph, the Senate turns red and the future of Joe Biden’s administration will be defined by Republican obstruction; if Kari Lake and Tim Michels win gubernatorial contests in Arizona and Wisconsin, respectively, two key 2024 Electoral College swing states would be governed by 2020 election deniers. Yet none of those outcomes would be more stunning than Hochul, the Democratic incumbent governor, going down in defeat in true-blue New York.
The most recent polls say it won’t happen. But several have shown Hochul’s lead over Republican congressman Lee Zeldin dwindling to the alarming single digits, a reflection of both local troubles and the stiffness of the headwinds facing Democrats nationally. “After Dobbs, there was a sense that maybe Democrats are going to buck the midterm trends,” says Mike Morey, a top New York Democratic consultant, referencing the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn federal protections for abortion rights. “But I think we’re settling into what is a normal political cycle where the party out of power does really well.”
Hochul became New York’s first female governor last August after the abrupt, scandal-fueled resignation of Andrew Cuomo. She has wasted no time in deploying the powers of incumbency, raising $46 million during her first 14 months in office and distributing many times that amount in state money, some of it aimed at useful constituencies: nearly $1 billion toward constructing a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills; close to $6 billion state subsidies for computer chip factory outside Syracuse; and $350 million for a Long Island Investment Fund. All of which may create jobs and help buy her some love. Yet until very recently Hochul, hardly a household name in New York, has done minimal retail campaigning or outreach. “I’m a triple prime Democratic voter and, like all the other triple prime Democratic voters I know, I have not received an email, a phone call, a text message, or a digital ad from the governor’s campaign,” a New York Democratic insider says. “That’s sort of basic stuff to tell people there’s a damn election. Meanwhile, Zeldin’s out there having rallies with Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin, and people are showing up for that. The Republicans know there’s an election!”
They also know that the biggest issue for many New York voters, of both parties, is crime. Zeldin has been eagerly demagoguing the increase—with the enthusiastic help of the New York Post’s front page—but he hasn’t invented the problem. “Don’t get me wrong: Abortion is important, and it’s a good issue for Democrats, but it isn’t top of mind for most voters,” the senior Democratic strategist says. “Right now, they’re thinking about quality of life—homeless people on the subway making them scared. Hochul’s campaign has missed that zeitgeist.” Still, the fears don’t seem high enough to buy Zeldin’s proposed solutions, in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, and even independents outnumber registered Republicans. “He had a narrow lane, where he needs independents and disaffected Democrats, and with the news cycle focused on him Zeldin’s big idea was arming teachers with guns,” says Neal Kwatra, a Democratic consultant. “It was an absolute strategic blunder. It will be relatively close, but I think she’s going to win.”
The hand-wringing over Hochul’s tighter-than-usual race is perhaps more a reminder that New York is not impermeable to national forces—a reality made even more clear by incumbent congressman Sean Patrick Maloney’s race in a Hudson Valley district north of New York City. The leader of the Democrats’ House campaign arm is fighting for his electoral life against a conservative Republican state assemblyman, Mike Lawler. Maloney has himself partly to blame for the predicament. Earlier this year, in his role as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Maloney attempted to steer the state’s redistricting process to favor Democrats; Republicans sued, and a state court-appointed special master ended up redrawing the map to make it more neutral.
The new lines also carved up Maloney’s district. To give himself a better shot at a seventh term, Maloney elbowed out an adjoining fellow Democratic incumbent, Mondaire Jones. “I would be the first to tell you I could have done it better,” Maloney told me. “This was about nothing more than knowing how important it is to live in the district you represent.” Maloney is now running in a district that contains only about one-third of his previous constituents. How vulnerable is the five-term incumbent? Well, Joe Biden felt the need to step in: Last week the president called a prominent Hasidic rabbi whose congregation lives in the district and asked him to back the congressman’s re-election.
National Republican groups, seizing the opportunity to knock off a high-profile Democrat, have poured at least $9 million into the effort to defeat Maloney. State Democrats, looking for good news, point to an open congressional seat out on Long Island, where Robert Zimmerman, a businessman and longtime party fundraiser who is running for office for the first time, appears to be in fairly strong shape. That race could end up being the biggest bright spot for New York Democrats next week—especially if Hochul and Maloney don’t escape a red wave lapping the East Coast.