Why the Democrats Just Lost the House

Across the country, Democratic leaders are looking at deep-blue New York and seeing red. For good reason.

The party just came up agonizingly short in its attempt to buck history and retain a majority in the House of Representatives — a failure that is directly attributable to decisions New York Democrats made this year that cost four House seats and wasted tens of millions of dollars in national party resources that could have been deployed to win seats in other states.

Some elections are determined in the mad rush of a campaign’s final days. And others are effectively over before they begin. In New York, the Democratic supermajority in control of the legislature made two fatal mistakes driven by arrogance and incompetence that sealed the fate of its congressional candidates many months ago. Those mistakes point up the dangers of one-party rule, especially when it becomes so entrenched and beholden to its most activist wing — and in this case causes some Democrats to vote Republican just to break that stranglehold.

The first mistake: After an independent commission created by voters failed to agree on a new map of House districts in New York, Democrats got greedy. Instead of drawing maps that were modestly advantageous, they went whole hog — producing an extremely gerrymandered map that invited a successful legal challenge.

Second, the legislature apparently decided that voter concerns about crime and disorder were nothing to worry about. After three decades of falling crime, Democrats had gotten complacent and disconnected, and failed to recognize that the bail reforms they passed in 2019, eliminating cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, were deeply unpopular.

Those mistakes led to avoidable losses in the suburbs that helped doom national Democratic hopes to retain the House.

The challenge facing Democrats in New York should have been clear last year when Republicans defeated a Democratic incumbent county executive and two district attorneys on Long Island. Fair or not, the Republican message was quite simple: Bail reform passed by Democrats in Albany had created a wave of crime and disorder.

At the same time, Democrat Eric Adams was swept into New York City’s Hall on a message of public safety. His message was also quite simple: As a former cop — and as a teenage victim of police brutality — he was well positioned to ensure both a reduction in crime and respectful policing.

Sadly there is little evidence that Democratic leaders in Albany heard the alarm bells ringing on Long Island or saw the Adams victory in the city as a path forward.

Instead, in the face of crime rates rising some 30 percent in New York City, Democrats mostly denied that there was a crime problem on the scale that Republicans portrayed in frequent campaign ads. To the extent that Democrats acknowledged the growing disorder at all, they argued that there was no data showing that bail reforms affected crime — a claim at odds with the desire of many voters for stronger public safety, including locking up potentially dangerous people and giving judges the ability to consider dangerousness in making bail decisions.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, newly elevated after Andrew Cuomo’s implosion and resignation, was able to persuade the legislature to tinker with the bail laws. But the changes were too little and too late, and voters were unconvinced. New York remains the only state in the nation where in setting bail, judges cannot take into account whether a person arrested for a crime is a danger to the community. Democrats in the legislature failed to offer any other alternative solutions to the problem.

Remaining insulated from swing voters is a luxury that most members of the legislature enjoy because so many of them represent overwhelmingly Democratic districts in which elections are decided in low-turnout primaries. These lawmakers make policy choices that don’t always work for those who have to defend them in competitive general elections.

And sadly for House Democrats, that is precisely what their candidates running for Congress had to do.

Democrats began the congressional redistricting process positively giddy around the prospects of drawing a new map that would net them as many as three new seats in New York. Those wins would help offset the impacts of Republican gerrymandering in Texas and Florida. Unfortunately for Democratic planning, in 2014 voters had passed an amendment to the state’s Constitution that was designed to prevent just this kind of extreme gerrymandering.

But a legislature that failed to prioritize voter concerns around crime was clearly prepared to ignore it around redistricting reform. It set about drawing a congressional map that so blatantly overreached that a court struck it down, threw it out and turned the process over to a special master instead who drew a map that gave Republicans every opportunity to exploit Democratic failures around crime and disorder.

Would a more modest map have passed judicial muster and given Democrats more safe seats to run for? We will never know, but such a map would certainly have given the court a clearer path to approve it.

During the fall campaign, Republicans in the New York City suburbs and upstate hammered Democrats on crime and linked them to the unpopular bail reforms. They were cheered on by The New York Post, which splashed shootings, murders and subway violence on the front page. Democrats complained about this coverage, but contending with the city’s opinionated tabloids is a condition of running for office here — and The Post didn’t manufacture crime; it just highlighted it.

As a result, Democrats lost six congressional districts won by Joe Biden in 2020 — more than in any other state in the nation.

Fortunately this failure should create opportunity for Democrats in 2024. If the legislature course-corrects and takes meaningful steps to address crime, as Mayor Adams is working to do, these newly elected Republicans will be highly vulnerable. Steps that Mayor Adams has already taken to reduce murders and shootings should also help, such as reconstituting the Police Department’s anti-gun teams to focus on getting more guns off the streets. It won’t be easy: The same forces of extremism and complacency that one-party rule encourages still hold sway in Albany — and in so many state capitals across the nation.

But nothing will be easy for the nation, at least not for the next two years. And Democrats who will have to sit through endless partisan hearings about Hunter Biden with teeth clenched should remember why.

Howard Wolfson is a senior political adviser to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York and was a deputy mayor of the city from 2010 to 2013. He also was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign and the communications director for her first presidential campaign.

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