Here's How Republicans Pulled Off Big Upsets In New York State : The NPR Politics Podcast GOP candidates there embraced "bipartisan" messaging and capitalized on redrawn maps to flip four House seats from Democratic control in New York. Democratic hopefuls also didn't benefit as much as candidates elsewhere from an enthusiasm boost among voters concerned about access to abortion because of the strong protections enshrined in state law. Coupled with Gov. Kathy Hochul's struggling top-of-the-ticket bid, Republicans found a perfect opportunity to secure narrow victories in the deep blue state.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, national correspondent Brian Mann, and political correspondent Susan Davis.

This episode was produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. It was edited by Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Fact-checking by Katherine Swartz.

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Here's How Republicans Pulled Off Big Upsets In New York State

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MELISSA: Hi. This is Melissa (ph) from Chicago. After three years of training, two failed attempts and one 140.6-mile journey around the island of Cozumel, Mexico, I finally heard the words, Melissa, you are an Ironman.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Wow.

MELISSA: This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

1:06 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, November 29 of 2022.

MELISSA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I assure you, I'll still be recovering and smiling about my victory. OK. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DAVIS: That's amazing. People that do Ironman competitions are a different breed.

KHALID: Yeah. I was going to say that is an athletic goal that I can only dream of.

DAVIS: You do not share, Asma?

KHALID: No (laughter). Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

KHALID: And today on the show, we're going to try to understand what happened in New York state during the midterms. Republicans will control the House of Representatives in Washington next year, and they've got New York state to thank. A third of their pickups were in that state. That is despite the fact that in New York, there are far more registered Democratic voters than Republicans - more than twice as many, in fact.

So to help us explain what happened, we are joined on today's show by NPR's Brian Mann. He's based in upstate New York. Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.

KHALID: Thanks for joining us. And, Brian, you have been covering New York politics for the network. So tell us a little bit about some of these specific seats.

MANN: Yeah. Some of these Republican wins, very narrow wins in some cases, came in really suburban, kind of purple and even blue-tinged districts. Some of these are places where Joe Biden did really well. And so these were hard-fought. And unlike in the rest of the country, they narrowly tipped toward Republicans. It was a great night and a great week for the GOP here.

DAVIS: You can't really overstate how important New York was to the outcome of the 2022 elections. I mean, Republicans are looking at having a 222-seat majority. That gives them just four seats to play with with tough legislation next year. I mean, New York was absolutely critical to the red ripple that we saw on election night.

KHALID: So I've got a question that maybe you both can help answer. You know, this was, overall, a midterm election cycle that went pretty well for Democrats. Republicans did not have as many wins as they had expected going in. And yet New York state seems to be this anomaly or one of the few anomalies. So were the issues at the center of these specific Republican pickups in New York different than what we saw in some of the other states?

MANN: I don't think these were really all that different as issues. What's different is how they played here. And the big one that everybody's talking about is crime. The Republicans have been very on message, beating the drum hard that crime is up in New York City and in the suburbs on Long Island. The statistics don't always back that up. It's a kind of a complicated picture about where violent crime and burglaries and other things are going. But what everybody is saying - Democrats, Republicans, everybody looking at this - is that crime really caught on, and voters reacted to it, and it mobilized a lot of people. People talking about getting mugged on the subway, people talking about gun crime - it scared a lot of people, and it moved a lot of Republican voters to the polls.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, also, we've talked a lot on the podcast about abortion and what a motivator it was in some states - thinking places like Michigan - but we didn't really see that bear out in New York. And I think one of those reasons - and we've talked about this before - is that in places where voters felt a very tangible threat to abortion rights, that was a huge motivator for a lot of Democratic and independent, even some right-leaning women. But in New York, I don't get the sense, Brian - and correct me if I'm wrong - that voters there really felt that abortion rights, which are protected by state law, were really under threat. And it didn't seem to resonate in New York or certainly not motivate Democrats in the same capacity that we saw in other places.

MANN: I think that's exactly right, Sue. And one of the things that's really interesting is that we sort of thought abortion was fading as a big mobilizer around the country, but, in fact, there was this quiet groundswell of people - women, independents - who went out and voted in part on that issue. But here in New York, it just doesn't seem to have played in that way despite Democrats trying to mobilize that vote. There was a lot of messaging around abortion in New York State and that - unlike crime, unlike inflation - it just didn't seem to catch on.

KHALID: You know, when we try to understand Republican success in New York state, I do not think that we can overlook the fact that New York had these new congressional maps, you know, this year. And it strikes me that Democrats were not fully prepared for the consequences of this new redistricting reality.

DAVIS: I mean, if Democrats had one problem in New York this year, it was Democrats, right (laughter)? Like, the way that the Democrats - and Democrats not only - you know, they control everything in New York. They control the state House. They have the governor's mansion. And they also, in the beginning, controlled the redistricting process. And they didn't just redistrict. They gerrymandered, right? They aggressively gerrymandered to a point that a judge threw it out and created a system where the maps at the very last minute were handed over to something called a special master - a third-party, nonpartisan official, unelected - who got to redraw the state's districts in time for the congressional elections.

And the result of that was nearly angering every Democrat in that process. And what it did was it created a lot more competitive districts. It created a lot of infighting among incumbent Democrats, who were then forced in some instances to run against each other. And it kind of just created a structural mess for the party to have to deal with on top of this.

I mean, I think if we are talking about what happened in New York this cycle, I think the gerrymandering, the effects of those maps getting thrown out and Democrats overplaying their hand is probably the No. 1 reason why the party didn't do as well in the state as they should have. And if they hadn't overplayed that hand, if they had drawn more reasonable maps that might have been - you know, tilt Democratic but not aggressively gerrymandered, they might have staved off even more Republican victories. I don't know if they could have held the House entirely, but they could have even narrowed this four-seat Republican majority even narrower.

KHALID: But it strikes me that in addition to these newly drawn maps, there has to be something that was going on politically there in the state because you look at the New York governor's race. Kathy Hochul did win her first full term in office. She's the Democrat. She won by six points over Lee Zeldin. But that was a closer race than the state has had at the top of the ticket for some time. And that is even after President Biden came out to help her campaign. And I'm still struck, you know, by what exactly was going on at a state level in New York.

MANN: I think there are two things that I look at here. One is that Kathy Hochul just ran a pretty lackluster campaign after winning the primary handily. I think she felt like she could really cruise to a victory over Lee Zeldin. And it turned out that he ran a very disciplined, very on-message campaign. He talked again and again about crime and inflation. He stayed away from the more culture war, MAGA stuff, and he just ran a really sharp campaign against her.

I think the other headwind that Kathy Hochul and then down-ticket House races faced was just kind of an exhaustion with Democrats. You know, this came at the end of the long Andrew Cuomo era, which ended in disgrace and controversy. Kathy Hochul kind of inherited that whole mess. And so, you know - and again, I don't think Democrats were prepared for that - for voter exhaustion, for a lack of enthusiasm. And what we saw on Election Day here is, while Republican turnout was really high, a lot of Democrats just stayed home. They weren't enthusiastic about her. They weren't enthusiastic about Democrats. And it really showed.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break, and we'll be back in a moment.

And we're back. And, Sue, I want to talk about one of the New York House races in particular, where Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney lost his seat to Michael Lawler. And, you know, this was symbolically striking because Maloney was the man in charge of the Democrats' House campaign strategy nationally. Sue, I mean, it was a striking loss.

DAVIS: Yeah, it was an embarrassing loss, especially for Maloney. I think a couple of things here. One, the House Republicans, particularly their outside campaign funding arms, they saw an opportunity here, and they went in big. I mean, they devoted a ton of money into this district because they thought - not only did they see an opportunity for a win, but a symbolically - politically symbolically important one to defeat the campaign chief. They achieved that goal. They put the time and the resources in, but also they had a good candidate. You know, Lawler ran as someone reflective of that district. He was a state rep. He represented part of the district in the 2022 map. And Maloney was also, himself, a bit of a newcomer to this district. He chose to move and run at a different district after the new maps came out. So they were kind of on equal footing as candidates introducing themselves in a new district that wasn't a well-established incumbent that voters there had known really well.

And Lawler ran as sort of a centrist, more mainstream conservative. He did not embrace Trumpism. He did not embrace election denialism. And as Brian talked about crime, I do think that this is a district - it's suburban New York - where crime was a salient issue, or at least Lawler said he thought as much. And whether crime is a real problem or whether voters think it's a real problem are sort of two different metrics, right? And Lawler attributed the perception of crime and sort of public safety to his victory because he said - and I thought this was fascinating - about his district - he gave an interview on "NewsHour" after the election. And he said, I think, something like half the households in that district have people who work for the NYPD, for the New York fire department, are first responders or are dealing with public safety in some capacity. So in this local race, crime was a really salient issue, and it worked to the Republican advantage.

MANN: I think that's all right. And I also want to pick up on what Sue said about candidate quality. I mean, this is a big question around the country. Did Republicans field the best slate of candidates to win in some of these close House races? And here in this district against Maloney, I think they chose a guy who was spot on. And one of the things that was interesting was to listen to Lawler talk after his win about his willingness to be a bipartisan congressman.

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MICHAEL LAWLER: I'm just going to be myself and go talk to every single member of Congress, from AOC all the way to, you know, obviously, Leader McCarthy.

MANN: And I think that kind of approach, you know, sounding very bipartisan, very mainstream chamber of commerce. It made it possible for a lot of these sort of purple district independents to really move toward the Republicans.

KHALID: You know, Brian, I'm curious how you would describe some of the other Republicans who won in New York this month. Were they all akin to Lawler, this kind of moderate Republican? Were there, you know, Trump-backed election denialist folks who also won? And, I mean, you know, I know you live in, you know, Elise Stefanik's congressional district. I'm just kind of curious if they were more in line with her politics or were they more in line with someone like Michael Lawler?

MANN: Yeah, that's a great question. You know, Elise Stefanik - where I live, the congresswoman who's No. 3 in the House for the Republicans - she's already endorsed Trump. She's very on board with the MAGA agenda. But as I've been talking to Republicans across the state, especially in some of these competitive districts, they've really distanced themselves from that. They've aligned themselves with a much more moderate, again, kind of bipartisan approach. One of the folks I spoke to was Anthony D’Esposito on Long Island, a former cop who ran, again, on this crime narrative. But he really distanced himself from the MAGA agenda.

ANTHONY D’ESPOSITO: And the only way that you can govern and really connect with the majority of the residents that you serve in order to get reelected is to be moderate and not be too far to the right or too far to the left.

MANN: And that's a message, again, I heard over and over again from these new members of Congress. Remember, they're going to have to defend these districts in 2024, which could be a much harder environment for them and so a lot of them really leaning away from that sort of Trump narrative towards something that sounds a lot more kind of old-school Republican.

DAVIS: Brian, I'm curious for your take on this of whether you saw 2022 as a bit of a fluke election, where Republicans did very well because of things like the redistricting that we mentioned, or is something deeper going on here?

MANN: I think this is a one-off. I think, you know, everything went Republicans' way, and they still barely eked out wins in a bunch of these districts. And so I think going forward, Democrats have a really strong chance to look more aggressively at these House races in a couple of years.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. NPR's Brian Mann, thanks so much for joining us.

MANN: Thanks for having me on.

KHALID: I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover politics.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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