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How New York became friendly turf for Trump-aligned candidates

They maintained a relentless focus on crime and inflation, Rep.-elect George Santos says

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Last week, voters from Arizona to Pennsylvania rejected politicians who embraced former President Donald Trump’s agenda.

So how did several Trump-aligned candidates in New York, a state where registered Republicans are outnumbered 2 to 1, defy the political headwinds and win 11 of 26 seats, including four that had been previously held by Democrats?

With a relentless focus on crime and inflation, said Republican George Santos, a first-generation American who flipped New York’s 3rd District, which encompasses parts of Long Island and northern Queens.

“There’s a mischaracterization that New Yorkers are very liberal,” he said. “Here’s the reality: We’re experiencing crushing inflation, we’re experiencing record cost of energy and crime. I ran a campaign talking to voters about issues that affect them every day.”

Santos has expressed support for Trump in the past. He was in Washington for the “Stop the Steal” rally in 2021 when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, though he later called Jan. 6 “a sad and dark day in our history.” 

Santos beat Democrat Robert Zimmerman by more than 9 percentage points in a district that Joe Biden won by about 10 points in 2020. 

In addition to Santos, the newly elected Republicans from New York include Mike Lawler, who unseated Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in the Hudson Valley; Brandon Williams, who won in central New York; Nick LaLota, who will fill the eastern Long Island seat currently occupied by Republican Lee Zeldin, who ran for governor; Anthony D’Esposito, who flipped a Long Island seat that had been in Democratic hands for two decades; Marcus Molinaro, who won in Dutchess County; and Nick Langworthy, the state Republican chairman, who was elected in western New York. 

Democrats had tried to redraw New York’s map to make Republicans more vulnerable, but that map was overturned by a court. Still, Democrats were buoyed when Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan won a closely watched special election in August.

Midterm losses in New York sparked a round of recrimination and blame from top Democrats. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other officials and community group leaders from the party’s progressive wing are calling for a change in leadership of the state party. “If we’re going to thrive after this election, we need to clean things up from the very top and activate communities across the state,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

On Tuesday, the day after The Associated Press called a seat for Williams, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said he’s seeking a post-election analysis of exactly what went wrong for the Democrats.

“I have suggested that this should be an after-action analysis with a focus on the state Democratic Party, focus on some of the statewide campaigns and trying to figure out what happened in Long Island, what happened in the Hudson Valley,” he said.

For Republicans, New York was a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing year. 

“We’re happy to point out this is now the second straight cycle that House Republicans have picked up seats in New York,’’ said Rep. Tom Emmer,  the Minnesota Republican who led the House GOP campaign arm. “We’re seeing historic victories on Long Island with George Santos and Anthony D’Esposito, in the Hudson Valley with Mike Lawler and Marcus Molinaro flipping seats.”

Yet the wins by conservative Republicans across the Empire State defy easy explanation. Bruce Gyory, a political strategist who has advised a number of New York Democrats in the past (though none in the current cycle), says the results were less of a statewide red wave and more of a partisan riptide.

Republicans’ tough talk on crime resonated in suburban Long Island, a purplish region that perpetually swings between the two parties, and Rockland County, home to large numbers of current and retired New York City police officers, he said. 

“Nobody owns Long Island,” Gyory said. “They have a high proportion of conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans and true independents. … Long Island can flip in one cycle, and it’s done it repeatedly over the last 15 years.”

New York has long been the domain of moderate “Rockefeller Republicans.” But, Gyory said, the lack of a prominent centrist Republican leader in state politics — he cited former Govs. George Pataki and Nelson Rockefeller — and the nationalization of congressional races has driven the success of the current crop of more conservative politicians.

David Jones, a professor of political science at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, said the newly elected members from New York will have to walk a careful line if they hope to win reelection. 

“Many of these New York Republicans won’t look like a Texas Republican or a Georgia Republican,” Jones said. “They’ll still be conservative, but they’re keeping in mind, ‘How can I not alienate the middle-of-the-road voter and keep this seat?’”

In the suburbs of Long Island and Rockland County, conservative social policies aren’t necessarily winning issues, but taking a tough stance on crime is, Jones said. 

“These voters may be totally comfortable with gay marriage or supportive of abortion rights, but on other issues, like the crime issue, well, there’s a reason these voters have chosen to live in suburbs,” Jones said.

Santos will be the only openly gay Republican serving in the House, but he shrugged off the distinction. “I don’t see how that matters,” he said, adding that he is focused on “fiscal conservatism, not social issues.”

The new group of Republican freshmen from New York is going to make its presence felt, Santos said. “If [Democratic Gov.] Kathy Hochul wants us to bring federal dollars to the state, she’s going to have to understand we want them used for the right things, not for her liberal wish list,” he said.

As for Trump, Santos on Tuesday declined to endorse the former president’s 2024 run for the White House. Right now, he said, he’s busy setting up his congressional office. “I’m going to let some time go by and see what the options are,” he said.

Kate Ackley and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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