After a largely disappointing midterm election for the national Republican Party, New York—of all places—has provided some consolation. For a state long believed an unassailable Democratic stronghold, Representative Lee Zeldin’s relatively narrow loss to Governor Kathy Hochul offered New Yorkers a glimpse of what genuine political competition in general elections looks like. The fierce contest has already accrued benefits and will continue to pay dividends—not only to Republicans but also to millions of New Yorkers from all backgrounds who may have preferred Hochul to her competitor, yet who nonetheless feel uneasy about the state’s leftward lurch in recent years, particularly on crime and public safety.
Based on the way the two candidates campaigned over the summer, an onlooker would have been forgiven for thinking that Hochul and Zeldin were running in different states. The governor positioned herself as the champion of abortion rights and gun control. These national, high-visibility issues were, reasonably enough, thought to galvanize enough downstate voters to score an easy win for her, especially against a competitor with close ties to former president Donald Trump and a solidly conservative voting record. Zeldin, on the other hand, set a laser-like focus on curbing crime and disorder, even promising to fire Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg on his first day as governor (the state constitution would have given Bragg a right to due process before this removal). Even as polls increasingly revealed that public safety was voters’ top concern, Hochul downplayed the threat of crime and disorder, telling New Yorkers that their perception of fear was to blame. She even characterized Republicans who sounded the alarm on a nearly 30 percent rise in city index crimes as “master manipulators,” perpetrators of a “conspiracy going all across America to try and convince people that in Democratic states they’re not as safe.”
Yet as Hochul’s poll numbers sank and put the race within a competitive range, she could no longer ignore a simple truth: crime and disorder really do matter to voters, regardless of party or location. Political competition achieved its intended effect in forcing a reckoning, and New York City residents benefitted. While standing next to New York City mayor Eric Adams, Hochul announced on October 22 that the state would defray the cost of 1,200 police overtime shifts on the subways. This immediately yielded results: arrests nearly doubled, quality-of-life summonses more than doubled, and MTA CEO Janno Lieber hailed the “significant progress” achieved in a mere week’s time.
It shouldn’t have required the prospect of an embarrassing election loss to make Hochul realize that more cops on subways would make New Yorkers feel safer. But well-designed systems account and correct for human frailty. If political competition does not guarantee prudent leaders, it should at least yield responsive ones.
Unfettered one-party rule, by contrast, gave New Yorkers criminal-justice measures that provide near-limitless chances to repeat offenders. For example, just 10 career criminals racked up almost 500 arrests between 2020 and this August, when most were still on the streets, despite bench warrants for failing to appear in court. Zeldin performed a valuable public service by channeling voters’ frustrations and shining a light on New York’s unreasonable and extreme criminal-justice laws. The same would be true if a Democrat provided a reality check to a Republican stronghold in need of one.
Zeldin’s strong showing will reverberate for years. Several down-ballot Republicans rode to victory on his coattails, including Mike Lawler, who unseated Sean Patrick Maloney, the powerful ten-year incumbent ironically in charge of the committee responsible for electing Democrats to the House. Come January, Republicans will occupy four flipped congressional seats in New York’s delegation, the most of any state, forming an instrumental part of the GOP’s likely takeover of the House.
Another irony is that early this year, Hochul enacted the Democratic legislature’s severely gerrymandered congressional map, designed to erase three or four seats from Republican contention. Following a successful legal challenge at the state high court, a special master redrew the congressional and state senate maps with an eye to creating more political competition. This week’s results validated his work and demonstrated the critical importance of redistricting.
Democrats in the state senate also appear poised to lose veto-proof supermajority control. If they do, Hochul will enjoy greater leverage over the next legislative session, especially the all-important state budget process. That’s cause for cautious optimism on public safety, particularly the prospect of rolling back the excesses of measures like bail and discovery reform.
In a campaign ad that ran shortly before the election, Hochul promised, “You deserve to feel safe, and as your governor, I won’t stop working until you do.” Time will tell if that vow holds up. But the governor should consider herself warned.
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