House GOP looks to topple Democrats’ campaign chief

Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.)
Greg Nash
Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) leaves the Capitol following the last votes of the week on Friday, September 30, 2022. The House returns on Nov. 14 following the midterm elections.

House Republicans are increasingly hopeful they can bump off one of the top Democratic leaders — campaign chairman Sean Patrick Maloney — in a tightening New York race that exemplifies the tough terrain facing the majority party in the final leg of the midterm campaign.  

As recently as the summer, Maloney’s edge was considered comfortable: President Biden won the Hudson Valley-based district by 10 points just two years ago.   

But GOP operatives, encouraged by recent polls and an unpopular president, have seen the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) as newly vulnerable this month, dedicating millions of dollars to topple the brash, five-term New Yorker in the last week alone.   

Evidence that the spending has paid dividends emerged on Monday, when the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, shifted Maloney’s race to the most competitive “toss up” category. If the GOP does prevail, it would mark the first general election defeat for a campaign chair of either party since 1980.  

The shifting tides have renewed the controversy surrounding Maloney’s decision to jump districts this year, raised the prospects that the figure charged with keeping Democrats in their seats might lose his own and invigorated Republicans looking to pad their expected gains with the symbolic victory of ousting a member of the Democratic brass.   

“It will be quite a feather in their cap to knock off the DCCC chair,” Democratic strategist Jon Reinish, a former aide to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), told The Hill, adding that top GOP lawmakers would be “gleeful” to see Maloney ousted.  

“He is a very effective burr in their collective saddle, so the idea that they could knock him off would be one that would be very tantalizing,” Reinish later said.  

In a sign of increasing trouble for Maloney, the DCCC on Monday announced a $605,000 ad buy targeting the incumbent’s GOP challenger, New York Assemblyman Mike Lawler, labeling him a “MAGA extremist.” That expenditure added to the $140,000 Democratic super PAC Our Hudson dumped into the race last week, as reported by Politico.  

But the ninth-inning investments do not begin to compare to the millions of dollars Republican groups have poured into the district.  

Last week, before Our Hudson announced its ad buy, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), a super PAC aligned with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), took out a $4 million ad buy for Maloney’s race, on top of $2 million the group had previously spent. And on Monday, news broke that the National Republican Congressional Committee was increasing its ad buy for the district by $867,000, making the group’s total spending in the race almost $1.8 million.  

The outside spending is crucial since Maloney’s campaign has outraised Lawler’s operation by more than $3.8 million.  

For Democrats, the DCCC’s entrance in the race will likely prove controversial, creating a situation where the party’s campaign arm is forced to spend limited resources on its own chairman — an embarrassing dynamic that Republicans are already seeking to exploit.   

“Frontline Democrats getting cut off can thank Sean Patrick Maloney and his vain attempt to save himself,” CLF Communications Director Calvin Moore said in a statement on Monday.  

In one sense, Maloney’s eleventh-hour troubles are merely a reflection of late problems facing Democrats at large. After experiencing a bump in the polls in August and September — fueled by falling gas prices and the Supreme Court’s unpopular decision to eliminate federal abortion rights — Democrats have since seen their prospects fade, as inflation and other economic factors seem to drown out voter concerns over reproductive rights, the state of U.S. democracy and other issues Democrats have sought to highlight.   

In another sense, however, Maloney’s challenges are unique. He’s the only member of Democratic leadership who’s facing a difficult reelection bid, which has made him an attractive target for GOP operatives looking to demoralize their rivals across the aisle.   

And Maloney has courted plenty of controversy on his own this year, using DCCC dollars to boost conspiracy-minded conservatives in GOP primaries, which has angered some Democrats wary that those Republicans could win seats in Congress.   

Perhaps even more contentious was Maloney’s decision to jump districts after New York’s map was redrawn this year — a move that forced first-term Rep. Mondaire Jones (D) into another district, where he lost in a crowded primary. The episode infuriated Jones and his allies, particularly those in the Congressional Black Caucus, who accused Maloney of putting his own political survival over the interests of the party.   

Maloney “really tried to claim he was a better fit for NY-17 than Mondaire Jones, whose personal phone number half the district has, based on this tired BS. Karma’s a bitch,” Zach Fisch — Jones’s former chief of staff who held his post until June, according to the congressional website LegiStorm — wrote on his private Twitter account. The Hill obtained a screenshot of the tweet.  

Democratic strategists point to several factors that have put Maloney’s seat in jeopardy, not least the GOP’s outside cash advantage, the broader momentum shift and Maloney’s sometimes prickly public persona.  

Chris Coffey, who helped run Andrew Yang’s 2021 New York City mayoral bid, added another possible factor: Jones’s loyalists might be angry enough that they decline to support Maloney.  

“If there are pastors, district leaders or community leaders who are loyal to Mondaire — and even if some of them just don’t like him, just don’t like Sean Patrick — I would think that would be a problem,” Coffey said. “It doesn’t have to be a big problem, right? Like even if it’s a small percentage, like in a close race, like, that could be a problem.”  

“Sean has a big target on his back,” said Reinish, now the managing director of Mercury Public Affairs’s New York office. “He’s the campaign chair, he represents a moderate suburban and exurban district, he’s an out gay Democratic congressman, he’s on TV, he’s [a] very prominent guy. So take all of that together, that’s a pretty big target on your back.”  

He pointed to narrowing polls in New York’s gubernatorial race, where Rep. Lee Zeldin (R) is challenging incumbent Kathy Hochul. Zeldin trails Hochul in FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls, but the gap is decreasing. 

“If Zeldin is doing really well in the suburbs and exurbs, that gravitational pull could be a real problem for swing-district Democrats,” Reinish said. 

Maloney’s campaign is downplaying the late challenges, particularly the Cook shift. 

“This race is and always has been competitive, just like the 5 others that Rep. Maloney has won,” campaign spokesperson Mia Ehrenberg said in a statement. 

According to FiveThirtyEight, Maloney is favored to win over Lawler, 79 percent to 21 percent. 

Still, Maloney is not blind to the roadblocks he’s facing. During an interview with the Albany Times Union on Friday, he said he was worried about his reelection chances. 

“Look, I’m a gay guy with an interracial family in a Trump district; I didn’t win this seat five times by not worrying about it,” Maloney told the newspaper. “You have to do your work. You have to go out and make your case.” 

“So, of course, I worry about it. I run like I’m behind,” he added. “That’s why I’ve been successful.”

Tags 2022 midterm elections Biden Kevin McCarthy Kirsten Gillibrand Sean Patrick Maloney
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