Welcome to the second edition of Against The Trend, Split Ticket’s new regional electoral analysis series. Today’s publication will examine the 2022 House election results in New York through the lens of the Empire State’s gubernatorial race. Just like in South Texas, which we covered in our previous installment, the data used for this piece suggest that candidate quality still plays a significant role in generating crossover support during midterm cycles despite the political polarization of the Trump-era.
Parsing New York’s Regions
Before diving into the returns in each competitive congressional district, it’s necessary to hammer out New York’s different regions. There’s usually disagreement in each U.S. state over how best to group certain counties with similar characteristics together — in New York in particular, there seems to be a longstanding debate as to where “Upstate” begins — but we believe the map below accomplishes the task adequately for the Empire State. Let’s take a look at the defining geographic and political attributes of some of New York’s most important enclaves.
Long Island has strong Republican traditions at the federal level dating back over a century – Nassau County was especially known for Joseph Margiotta’s GOP machine. Since the Clinton Administration, though, Nassau, along with its eastern neighbor Suffolk, have become more friendly to Democrats, although the former is bluer than the latter. Donald Trump easily flipped Suffolk in 2016, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to win it since 1992, but barely held the county four years later. Suffolk County was one of the few large suburban counties nationally that backed John Kerry in 2004 but went against Joe Biden 16 years later. Nassau, meanwhile, with a higher minority population, has long been more Democratic than its counterpart — in recent presidential elections, it’s consistently given Democratic candidates a vote share in the low-50s.
In terms of down-ballot lean, Long Island’s two constituent parts have been predictable. During the Clinton years, Republican candidates like George Pataki put up large margins here — a vestige of the once formidable Nassau machine. More recently, perhaps a sign of the times, disgraced Democratic Governors Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo outran the Long Island’s presidential lean by appealing to working class voters.
Lying directly west of Long Island is New York City, considered by many to be the “gem” of American metropolises. Politically speaking, the city’s preferences have historically been as diverse as its various ethnic groups. But like the gentrification of some of its formerly-stratified neighborhoods, NYC’s voting patterns have since become more fluid and predictable.
Since its consolidation, in 1898, New York City has almost exclusively voted Democratic in presidential elections. New York (Manhattan), Bronx, and Kings (Brooklyn) counties haven’t voted for a Republican President since Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Queens remained competitive for the GOP after Franklin Roosevelt’s second term, but has voted Democratic for President comfortably since Ronald Reagan left the White House. Today Richmond County (Staten Island) is the NYC borough that routinely backs the GOP at the federal and state levels.
Except for the 11th district, which encompasses Staten Island, the City has not recently elected Republicans to the House. The latest example is Bob Turner, who won a 2011 special election to replace scandalous Democrat Anthony Wiener in his Brooklyn/Queens-based 9th district. Turner unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2012, returning the seat to Democrats.
The more enduring historical example of a NYC Republican is Bill Green, a liberal who represented the “Silk Stocking District” in Manhattan’s Upper East Side for more than a decade. Like Turner, Green was first elected in a special election. He defeated Bella Abzug in that 1978 race to replace Mayor-elect Ed Koch and held on until losing to Democrat Carolyn Maloney in 1992 after redistricting placed portions of Brooklyn and Queens into his seat.
Upstate New York has lately been trending Democratic at the presidential level but retains a long Republican tradition stretching back to the Civil War. On paper, thanks to NYC’s Democratic lean, most of the Upstate counties vote to the right of the state. There are still blue bastions in the red sea, though, including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, the state capital of Albany, and the college town of Ithaca. Democrats also tend to hold up better with white voters in New York’s rural and working class communities than they do elsewhere.
Three Upstate regions worth discussing for the purposes of this analysis are the Hudson Valley, the Southern Tier, and Central New York. The first, sometimes divided into halves referred to as “Lower” and “Upper”, stretches from the northern edge of the Bronx up to the Capital District. Westchester County, which last voted Republican for President in 1988, is the bulwark of the Hudson Valley’s Democratic tilt. Democrats also draw votes from Ulster and Dutchess counties, though the latter has a formidable Republican down ballot lean. Further west, evenly-divided Rockland and Orange counties contribute to the GOP’s floor.
To the northwest sits the Southern Tier, the most Republican of the three regions, though much more amenable to Democrats than the Pennsylvania counties across the border. Most Democratic votes here come from Broome County (Binghamton), a constituency which, other than for Trump in 2016, hasn’t voted Republican for President since Reagan in 1984. The GOP’s regional base stems mostly from counties like Steuben. The western half of this territory was represented by Democrat Stan Lundine, a future Lt. Governor of New York, and later by the lascivious Eric Massa.
The last region of note is Central New York, based around the cities of Syracuse and Utica. Onondaga County (Syracuse) dominates this part of the state. In an early edition of the Almanac of American Politics, author Michael Barone maintained that Syracuse, then a Republican bastion, would be Democratic-leaning it were in any other state — this was an illustration of a pervading anti-NYC sentiment that helped keep Upstate’s GOP loyalties alive. Perhaps to Barone’s point, while Onondaga County votes blue in presidential elections, it seems to have some enduring sympathies for down-ballot Republicans. The GOP currently holds the County Executive office and the old 24th district repeatedly elected moderate Congressman John Katko before his retirement in 2022.
Lee Zeldin’s Gubernatorial Campaign
Now that we have a basic understanding of New York’s recent political leanings, let’s briefly break down the impetus behind Lee Zeldin’s 2022 gubernatorial campaign. First off, though, we need to touch on Governor Kathy Hochul, his opponent. Originally Erie County Clerk, she was elected as a moderate in a 2011 House special election but narrowly lost reelection in 2012 after unfavorable redistricting.
Hochul eventually became Lt. Governor, replacing long-time incumbent Andrew Cuomo after he resigned due to sexual assault allegations. She is the first Upstate governor in nearly a century and followed Kirsten Gillibrand’s path in modulating her political beliefs leftward to better represent the whole state after assuming statewide office.
Zeldin, who currently represents the 1st district, lost a 2008 bid for Congress in a landslide before successfully entering the State Senate. With two victories under his belt, Zeldin knocked off Democratic Congressman Tim Bishop in 2014. In the years since, the Long Island Republican built a brand strong enough to undergird a gubernatorial campaign.
Though he ultimately lost his 2022 bid by 6 points, Zeldin’s performance was still impressive given New York’s Biden +23 presidential lean. As we’ll discuss in detail soon, his numbers across the board formed a “Republican tide” that helped lift all boats at the congressional level despite a better-than-expected Democratic night nationwide. Additionally, as Split Ticket partner Armin Thomas wisely predicted in moving the race to LIKELY D based on pre-election polling, Zeldin dominated the NYC media market with the salient crime issue to post record-breaking performances with Asian and ethnic white voters.
One of the few bright spots for Hochul was her ability to outrun the Democrats’ 2018 floor in the Columbia Valley counties that compose the Capital District. This can probably be chalked up to Cuomo’s unpopularity in the region and Molinaro’s subsequent stellar performance, but there’s still a case to be made that a generic Democrat without any upstate connections could have suffered even more bleeding up north. Note also that some of the smaller Republican swings occurred in the counties surrounding Erie that composed Hochul’s old House seat.
Congressional Results – Estimating Zeldin’s Impact
Our data show that Zeldin had a positive effect on Republican House candidates across the board. While Democrats across the board have complained about the failure to realize the “Hochulmander,” it’s unclear whether such a map would’ve been completely effective in 2022.
Before discussing each of the competitive races in relation to its gubernatorial topline, we want to lay out the methodology behind our district estimates of Zeldin’s support. First off, it should be noted that guesswork is required because precinct results won’t be available on a statewide scale anytime soon — if ever — given New York’s track record in that regard.
To calculate rough gubernatorial leanings, we looked at the difference between the 2020 presidential partisanship of the county portions in each district relative to the counties as a whole and then adjusted the relationship for 2022 based on Zeldin’s county-level margins. Estimates for county portions are weighted based on the share of the 2020 vote cast in each one, as the above example for New York’s 3rd district shows. These numbers obviously aren’t exact, but we believe they are fairly accurate and internally-consistent. By working upward from the county level, we reduce the variability associated with simple district-wide uniform swing calculations.
How did House Republicans do compared to Zeldin?
The table above compares actual congressional results against the calculated gubernatorial margin in each district based on the example provided for NY-03. Starting with Long Island, it’s clear that Zeldin’s strong performance in Suffolk and Nassau counties benefitted Republicans overall. The largest delta in the region (-5.2) came from NY-01, won by Republican Nick LaLota, most of which Zeldin currently represents. Upstart GOP candidates George Santos (NY-03) and Anthony D’Esposito (NY-04) can also thank their gubernatorial nominee for strengthening the Republican floor in two comfortable Biden seats with deltas of (-3.5) and (-1.9).
In NY-02, our assessment suggests Republican Anthony Garbarino wasn’t too reliant on the top of the ticket, although Zeldin’s showing may have helped him. The successor to veteran Congressman Pete King (R) won a rematch against Democrat Jackie Gordon by 22 points, likely outrunning the top of the ticket in the process. Incidentally, Garbarino was one of New York’s strongest Republican overperformers in 2020 according to Split Ticket’s WAR research. This is the reddest seat on Long Island.
NY-06, a heavily-Democratic district in Queens, wouldn’t normally be of any interest in an analysis of competitive seats. This cycle, however, Zeldin’s aforementioned use of crime issues to appeal to Asian voters managed to raise the Republican floor there. Our estimates show Hochul winning this Biden +30 seat by just 11 points. Unlike in NY-03, where Hochul’s underperformance in Queens helped elect Santos to Congress, incumbent 6th district Democrat Grace Meng managed to draw a significant amount of crossover support from Asian voters. Her 26 point victory would mark a massive 15 point delta based on our estimates. This district was close in the 2021 NYC Mayoral race.
In the Staten Island/Brooklyn-based NY-11, Republican Nicole Malliotakis comfortably won reelection against former Democratic Congressman Max Rose, whom she defeated in 2020. Malliotakis was a WAR overperformer last cycle and posted incredible margins Richmond County during the 2017 NYC Mayoral race. Though our estimates have her running roughly even with Zeldin, it wouldn’t be surprising if she overperformed given calculation variability.
Moving Upstate into the Hudson Valley, Zeldin seems to have modestly won NY-17 and NY-18 — outrunning the floor Molinaro set in the 2018 gubernatorial race. Interestingly, given the fact that the 17th is the bluer seat by presidential lean, Democrats did better in the 18th this year. Perhaps the 18th’s victor, Rep. Pat Ryan (D) was more prepared to run a close race after winning a special election in the old 19th district. Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, in the new 17th, narrowly lost his seat while Ryan held on. In terms of raw comparison, victorious Republican Mike Lawler underperformed Zeldin by less (-3.8) than Colin Schmitt, Ryan’s opponent (-4.6). Maloney is the first DCCC Chairman to lose reelection since California’s James Corman fell in 1980 and ironically lost 2022’s median seat according to political analyst Ethan Chen.
In NY-19, an open seat, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro managed to win even though his home lies outside of the district. He overperformed across the board relative to the 2020 presidential results and must be happy to get into Congress (he lost the NY-19 special election to Ryan).
NY-22, a direct successor to the current NY-24, continues to be fool’s gold for Democrats despite its ostensibly-favorable presidential lean. The tradition stretches back to 2014, when John Katko defeated sitting Democrat Dan Maffei by 20 points. Even though the incumbent retired this year, Republicans managed to hold the new open seat with Brandon Williams. Our estimate indicates Zeldin won the 22nd by around 6.5 points, a 5.5 point delta. Williams technically underperformed the top of the ticket by more than any other Republican in a competitive district pursuant to our calculations.
Finally, in NY-20 (Albany) and NY-25 (Rochester), two double-digit Biden seats, Republicans exceeded expectations thanks to poor urban turnout and Zeldin’s comparatively strong floor in Monroe and Albany counties. Congressman Paul Tonko did better in NY-20 than his colleague Joe Morelle did in NY-25, with a delta of (-4.3) versus (-0.9) in terms of Republican underperformance. Those numbers track with Split Ticket’s previous WAR research.
What’s In Store – 2024?
What can we expect from these competitive districts in 2024? Well, it’s really too early to make any firm judgements. In 2010, Republicans picked up several Upstate House seats, only for Mitt Romney to underperform John McCain throughout much of the region 2 years later. Midterm patterns don’t always become constant. When our next set of House ratings comes out later next year, seats housing vulnerable incumbents will begin at TOSSUP to reflect prevailing uncertainty. That said, our evidence suggests that recent Republican momentum at the congressional level in New York had much more to do with Zeldin’s performance than with the failure to sustain the “Hochulmander”.
Whether Upstate Republicans like Marc Molinaro, Mike Lawler, and Brandon Williams are able to hold on in Biden-won seats will come down not only to the national environment, but also personal branding and ability to generate crossover support. If we were to issue early predictions, we’d probably give Molinaro the best chance at holding on, followed by Williams. On Long Island, George Santos and Anthony D’Esposito need to hope that enough of Zeldin’s inroads with non-traditional Republican voters hold up to raise the GOP’s floor.
While the political environment in the Empire State almost certainly won’t be as favorable for Republicans as it was this year, the GOP’s new incumbents might be able to generate sufficient ticket-splitting to win reelection amid difficult national conditions. If 2024 is less polarized, and therefore more elastic, than 2020, candidate quality could make or break close races in big ways. However the cycle unfolds, it’s usually better on paper to be an incumbent when the environment is evenly-split.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org