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New York Democrats divided between moderates, progressives after disappointing defeats

Supporters of congressional candidate Mike Lawler watch the results on a large screen during an election night party.
Supporters of Republican congressional candidate Mike Lawler watch the results during an election night party in Pearl River, N.Y. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP)

After a disappointing performance that may cost the party control of the U.S. House, Democrats in New York are divided between progressives from New York City and suburban moderates, with both sides blaming the other for the loss of at least four congressional seats — two on Long Island, one in New York City’s northern suburbs and one upstate.

Those losses in an overwhelmingly Democratic state stood out in an election in which the party outperformed expectations in House and Senate races nationally.

Now progressives are calling for an overhaul of the moderate-dominated state party. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a prominent progressive from New York City, fired the opening shot on Twitter Wednesday when she called for the resignation of state party chair Jay Jacobs.

“NYS Dem party leadership, which was gutted under [former Gov. Andrew] Cuomo, stuffed with lobbyists, works to boost [the] GOP, and failed to pass a basic state ballot measure to protect NY redistricting, must be accountable,” she wrote. “I called for Jay Jacob’s resignation a year ago and I still hold that position.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entering an SUV.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., after campaigning with Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

Ocasio-Cortez was referring to a 2021 ballot initiative that would have allowed new congressional and legislative districts to be drawn by the Democratic-dominated state Legislature, instead of by a bipartisan commission created in 2014 with Cuomo’s support. The initiative’s defeat led to maps that had been drawn by the Legislature — which would have left Republicans with as few as four of New York’s 26 congressional seats, instead of the 10 they will now have — being overturned by four Cuomo appointees to the state Court of Appeals (two of whom are former Republicans).

The subsequent court-drawn maps were much more favorable to Republicans, costing Democrats a slew of House seats: the four they lost, and one currently held by a Republican that they would have picked up, according to a data analysis of election returns by the City, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet.

Jacobs, who was appointed by Cuomo, hails from Nassau County, the suburban Long Island area in which Democrats lost two House seats whose incumbents — Reps. Kathleen Rice and Tom Suozzi — did not run for reelection. Both districts had voted for Joe Biden in 2020, and yet both elected a Republican candidate. One of those future members of Congress, George Santos, said he attended then-President Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., that preceded the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.

Jay Jacobs, chair of the New York State Democratic Committee, speaks at the state Democratic convention.
Jay Jacobs, chair of the New York State Democratic Committee, at the state Democratic convention in New York on Feb. 17. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Hochul won her first full term in office by only 6 points on Tuesday, whereas Cuomo won by 14 points in 2014, the last midterm election with a Democrat in the White House. But she told reporters on Thursday that Jacobs “did a great job as chair” and that he should stay on. (Hochul’s office and campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

Progressive activists and commentators — many of whom noted the absence of get-out-the-vote efforts in heavily Democratic New York City, where voter turnout dropped from 44% of registered voters in 2018 to 36% this year, while the rest of the state’s turnout held steady at 55% — say that amounts to dereliction of duty by the party establishment.

In southern Brooklyn, for example, two longtime Assembly Democrats lost to Republicans, and local Democrats attributed the result to the party's failure to mobilize its voters. “Where the hell was the state party?” state Sen. Andrew Gounardes, a Democrat from the area, told the City. “We were literally left to die on a vine here. And it’s deeply frustrating that our party didn’t even put up a fight.”

“A lot of folks who don’t even necessarily identify with the left were like, ‘Why haven’t I received a single piece of mail? What is the state party doing?’” state Sen. Julia Salazar, who represents Brooklyn, a borough that has the most Democrats of any county in the state, told Yahoo News.

Jacobs denied that the party failed to run an energetic campaign, and he argued that progressives who criticize suburban and rural Democrats’ approach are out of touch with the reality of those districts. He said the party “had an extensive field program,” with 750 volunteers working out of 50 field offices. He added that voter-mobilization efforts targeted voters who do not consistently turn out in order to maximize their return on investment. “A lot was happening that AOC or others may not know we were doing,” he said.

But it wasn’t just about redistricting and the ground game, or lack thereof. Despite losing all of New York’s statewide races, Republicans did better than usual, as the electorate told pollsters that crime and inflation were their top two concerns. Republican candidates such as gubernatorial nominee Rep. Lee Zeldin and the winning GOP congressional candidates have relentlessly hammered Democrats for a spike in crime since 2020. (Crime has risen nationally since the pandemic, and New York remains a relatively safe state, with the 10th-lowest crime rate in the country.)

New York City Mayor Eric Adams argued on MSNBC Thursday morning that Democrats performed badly in the state because of a 2019 law that reduced the use of bail for lower-level criminal charges.

Adams, a former police captain and former Republican, consistently overstates the threat of crime. In May, he said he has “never witnessed crime at this level,” even though New York City has less than one-fifth as many murders as it did in 1990, when Adams was a police officer.

“Mayor Adams spent the last year really fearmongering about crime and in many ways becoming Lee Zeldin’s best surrogate, especially with suburban voters,” Sochie Nnaemeka, the New York director of the Working Families Party, a progressive beacon, told local news outlet NY1. Adams pointed his finger back at the left, saying that “those that ignored the concern” about crime are “at fault.”

Then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams speaks to the media on June 24, 2021 in New York City.
Eric Adams during his mayoral campaign in New York City in June 2021. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar, both of whom belong to the Democratic Socialists of America, say an ideological shift away from Adams’s style of messaging is needed. As they see it, the establishment favors centrists over forthright progressives who would motivate their base. And they say moderates’ efforts to assuage voters’ concerns on hot-button issues such as crime may do more harm than good by accepting a Republican frame.

“If we want people to turn out to vote, we have to be unapologetic about our party, as Democrats,” Salazar said. Democrats who performed better in hotly contested races elsewhere, such as Pennsylvania’s Sen.-elect John Fetterman, were more unabashedly progressive, they argue.

“I think, in New York, the way that those campaigns were run were different than the way a lot of winning campaigns across the country were run. And I think the role of the state party had very strong national implications,” Ocasio-Cortez told the Intercept’s Ryan Grim in a Wednesday interview for his newsletter. “I think the choice among certain Democrats to validate Republican narratives and amplify Republican narratives on crime and policing, running ads on it — validating these narratives actually ended up hurting them.”

Jay Jacobs addresses attendees at the Nassau County Democratic Party’s annual fall dinner in 2021.
Jacobs at the Nassau County Democratic Party’s annual fall dinner in 2021. (Thomas A. Ferrara/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

Jacobs argued that representatives of overwhelmingly Democratic districts are unfamiliar with the political reality that one encounters when campaigning on Long Island. “The reality is, there is not a candidate that has lost this year in Nassau County, or the year before, because anyone in the community or the advertising seemed to indicate that they weren’t progressive enough,” he said. “The reason they lost is that they continually got hit by Republican opponents for them being — I believe unfairly — too progressive.”

One particularly embarrassing loss for the establishment was Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a moderate who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. When much of Maloney’s district got moved into that of his neighbor Rep. Mondaire Jones, he decided to run in Jones’s district. This forced Jones — a progressive freshman who is one of the first two openly gay Black members of Congress — out of a seat. That drew criticism of Maloney from progressives and an unsuccessful carpetbagging primary challenge from progressive state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a notable Cuomo antagonist. Maloney, though his new district had gone for Biden by 10 points in 2020, lost to Republican challenger Mike Lawler. (Maloney told MSNBC that he and other congressional candidates were dragged down by Hochul’s poor performance.)

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney speaks to reporters in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney speaks to reporters in Washington, D.C., on the morning after the midterm elections. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

New York progressives and moderates were clashing long before this election cycle. While he was governor, Cuomo, who lived in suburban Westchester County, feuded constantly with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, beginning with quashing the mayor’s signature campaign promise of a millionaire’s tax. In 2019, Jacobs urged state senators from Long Island to vote against driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, a progressive priority.

“Those of us on the left have been frustrated with Jacobs for a long time,” Salazar said.

Progressives and moderates are also at odds over who dropped the ball on the redistricting ballot initiative last year. The deputy majority leader of the New York state Senate, Michael Gianaris, a liberal from Queens, told Yahoo News that the state party should have spent money on promoting it, while Jacobs contended that that was the state Senate campaign committee’s job.

Long Island Democrats do not necessarily share their colleagues’ frustration with the state party, instead blaming the legislative leadership for their woes.

“There’s too much control by those in the city of New York,” said state Sen. John Brooks — who lost his race for reelection this year after the composition of his district became less favorable — about Democrats in the state Legislature.

Brooks thinks New York City progressives overlook Long Island voters’ concerns, such as high property taxes, and he blames Gianaris for provoking the Appeals Court by trying to gerrymander too aggressively in Democrats’ favor, something Gianaris dismisses as “utter nonsense.”

Michael Gianaris at a news conference in New York City in 2021.
State Sen. Michael Gianaris at a news conference in New York City in 2021. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

“That’s what’s wrong with the Democratic Party in New York — the philosophy is ‘try less,’” Gianaris said. “The notion that this court would have approved any lines the Legislature drew is absurd. And for people to defend what this court has done just exemplifies why the Democrats had such a tough time in the election, because the party’s just a mess.”

Brooks told Yahoo News that the issue that hurt the most was crime, saying he “got killed” on bail reform by Republican mailers. “If you saw the mailers in my race and the commercials, you’d think there was a shoot-out on the corner every night,” he said. “They made public safety the issue,” even though, he noted, “Long Island is a relatively safe place to live.” (Nassau County was named the safest county in the country by U.S. News and World Report in June.)

Local Democrats attribute this apparent contradiction to the unusual interest that Republican billionaires take in New York: The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post campaigned outright for Zeldin, and it constantly runs hyperventilating crime coverage that — often misleadingly — blames bail reform for every assault in New York City. New York-based cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder spent more than $11 million supporting Zeldin’s campaign, including through political action committees “spreading context-free claims about crime,” according to the New York Times.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin at a campaign rally.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin at a campaign rally in Hauppauge, N.Y., on Oct. 29. (Julia Nikhinson/AP)

Regardless of strategy, Democrats will stand a good chance of regaining some of those congressional seats in 2024, when a presidential election is almost guaranteed to boost Democratic turnout. But Jacobs argues that the right approach to maximizing those gains is ideological caution.

“We can do progressive things, we can advance a progressive agenda, but we have to do them on pace with what the public can accept and buy,” he said.

Progressives counter that nominating more ideologically aggressive candidates like Santos and Zeldin — a staunch Trump supporter who voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election — seems to have worked better for Republicans than moderation has for Democrats.

“The right wing, they’re never going to love us, and I think it has been a mistake for some leaders in the party to capitulate to the right,” Salazar said. For example, she said, the state Legislature, with the support of Brooks and other moderates, has twice scaled back bail reform since it passed three years ago. “It just looks weak and indecisive, and it sort of rewards this messaging that is based not on fact, but on fear,” she added.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that the party will be stronger if it’s unified. “The Democratic Party is having a little bit of an identity crisis, or lacking a clear identity,” Salazar said. “And that’s just really uninspiring to voters.”