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Republicans won House seats in blue New York. Those wins could help shape Congress

Republican U.S. Rep-elect Mike Lawler, who eked out a narrow win in New York's Hudson Valley, has said he'd work closely with all members of the U.S. House, including progressive Democrats.
Mary Altaffer
Republican U.S. Rep-elect Mike Lawler, who eked out a narrow win in New York's Hudson Valley, has said he'd work closely with all members of the U.S. House, including progressive Democrats.

When Republicans take control of the U.S. House next month, they'll have voters in New York to thank for roughly a third of their national gains.

In the midterm elections, one of the bluest states in the country saw a relative red wave that led to a net gain of three seats, helping give the GOP its razor-thin majority.

But many of these Republican victories were by narrow margins and came in moderate suburban districts on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley.

And the centrist candidates who won have signaled they have little interest in the partisan clashes favored by the GOP's far-right MAGA wing.

"People of all parties trusted me, saw my work ethic," Anthony D'Esposito, a former cop and town councilor who won a seat on Long Island, said in an interview with NPR. He added: "The only way you can govern and really connect with a 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."

Mike Lawler, a Republican who eked out a hard-fought win in the Hudson Valley, sent a similar message.

Lawler managed to score one of the GOP's biggest midterm victories, toppling Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who led Democrats' national campaign committee.

But after his win, Lawler said he would work closely with Democrats, including those loathed by his party's far-right, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

"I'm going to just be myself and go talk to every single member of Congress from AOC all the way to obviously [Republican] Leader [Kevin] McCarthy," Lawler said.

Republican leaders will now have to find a balance between these new moderates who say they're aiming for bipartisanship, and right-wing House members who've been promising a scrum with the Biden administration.

Some of the party's most prominent Trump-aligned lawmakers, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Elise Stefanik, have said they'll focus on investigations of the president and his family.

"I'm not saying I don't support my party in other areas they're going to be concerned with," said D'Esposito, when asked about that agenda. "But for me my focus will be on exactly what we campaigned on, making America safer, making America more affordable."

Republican moderates face "a tightrope" in Washington

Lawrence Levy, who heads the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, says many of the freshmen from New York are smart to hew to the center if they hope to hold their seats.

"It's going to be a tightrope for all of them," said Levy, who noted many of the conditions that led to New York's red wave aren't likely to recur in 2024. Like:

  • Critics say Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul ran a lackluster campaign, winning by a narrow margin and failing to boost Democratic turnout.
  • Democrats were burdened by voter fatigue following the scandals that forced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo from office late in 2021.
  • A heavily gerrymandered redistricting plan for New York House seats, put forward by Democrats, was overturned by the courts. That sparked feuding among Democrats that left their candidates vulnerable.
  • According to Levy, Democrats can expect a much more favorable environment in two years.

    "Many more Democrats will be showing up at the polls just because they do in presidential years," he said. "If Donald Trump is on the ballot, as unpopular as he's likely to be in New York, he'll be a magnet for even more Democratic turnout."

    Democrats' vulnerability in 2024 could be crime

    Many observers say one issue favoring Republicans in the midterms that could linger into 2024 is public safety and crime.

    "The crime narrative was very effective," acknowledged Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic operative who worked on campaigns across New York.

    Violent crime is still near historic lows in the state, but Republicans pounded the issue relentlessly. GOP messaging was fueled by millions of dollars in outside spending and relentless coverage by right-wing media outlets.

    Pollock said Democrats statewide failed to come up with a clear unified response: "[The party] did not do enough to push back [against] those fears that many of those Republican voters had."

    Dan Clark, a veteran political journalist with WMHT, agrees that Democrats got out-messaged on crime and says it points to a deeper vulnerability.

    "Republicans had a very strong united message on crime and what they would do about it," he said. "Democrats didn't really come up with a plan. Everybody wants something different."

    Democrats are divided over what to do about the crime issue. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former cop, has called for some progressive criminal justice reforms to be scaled back or scrapped altogether. Progressive Democrats who dominate the state legislature in Albany have resisted those changes.

    Clark said those divisions point to serious questions about how Democrats will prepare for the 2024 campaign.

    "You see a lot of infighting among Democrats," he said. "Until the party finds a way to unify itself on issues that matter to voters they'll be vulnerable."

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.