Five takeaways from Tuesday’s big primaries
The New York Mets played the New York Yankees this week. Loyalties were divided; cross-town rivalries acute. The political equivalent of that series played out yesterday in a hard-fought Democratic primary between Reps. Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney in Manhattan. Here are five key takeaways from that race, as well as others in New York.
First, national Democrats had a huge night in New York, fortifying their sense that a brutal midterm environment has softened, if not turned around. The big news was the victory of Democrat Pat Ryan over Republican Mark Molinaro in a special election in the Hudson Valley to replace former Rep. Antonio Delgado (Delgado left the House to serve as lieutenant governor). No pundit that I know predicted a Democratic victory in that Republican-leaning district. One poll on the verge of Election Day had Molinaro up by eight points.
Molinaro’s campaign echoed the conventional GOP playbook, which should be entitled “B.I.G.”: Biden, Inflation, Gas.
At lunch in early summer, Ryan told me that he intended to “put choice on the ballot.” He decided to spur Democratic turnout and persuade swing voters by turning the race into a referendum on the Supreme Court’s dismantling of Roe v. Wade.
The strategy worked, and Ryan almost beat Molinaro in the Republican’s home county. But even in the post-election analysis, many pundits have missed another dynamic: Ryan is a West Point graduate and Iraq War combat veteran. The lesson: In purple districts, Democrats with credibility on national security issues perform well.
Second, the argument that a far-left progressive candidate is a prerequisite to turning out the base in New York fell flat in at least one district, NY-17. There, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, found himself in a primary by uber-progressive State Senator Alessandra Biaggi. Her campaign believed, understandably, that a low turnout Democratic primary in the dead of August would hinge on progressive energy. Maloney defeated her by over 30 points.
Lesson two: Ideological energy is important but doesn’t guarantee turnout in a primary. You need all the dynamics of a strong campaign, including money and compatibility with constituents.
Third, the lesson about the energy of the base in Maloney’s district upstate also applied to Republicans downstate. For example, In Long Island’s 2nd congressional district, incumbent Republican Anthony Garbarino trounced a Republican who bashed him for supporting the bipartisan infrastructure bill and to certify President Biden as the winner of the 2020 election.
Fourth, that clash of the titans between Nadler and Maloney (who found themselves drawn into the same district) proved an argument I made in this newspaper several years ago: Beneath the cerebral, often verbose image of Nadler are the survival instincts of a New York streetfighter. He may be one of the most underestimated political operatives on Capitol Hill (at least until last night). The guy grew up in Manhattan’s clubhouse politics, which can be more cutthroat than inside the beltway. Lesson: To survive in a rapidly changing, unpredictable environment, don’t lose your political footing. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) often says, you must “own the ground.”
Fifth, don’t cast these takeaways in stone when divining their impact on the November midterms. There are no political earthquakes in midterm elections, but there are tremors.
The bottom line is that for both parties, the ground remains shaky and unpredictable. The best strategy for both parties is to hope for the best and plan for the worst.
Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.