A day after a disappointing election for Democrats across the state, with Republican gains even in the progressive stronghold of New York City, politicians, staff, lobbyists and other political players flocked to sunny Puerto Rico for the annual Somos legislative conference. The lively atmosphere as people lounged on the beach, sipped mojitos and attended parties at night belied the tough losses Democrats faced amid a nationwide red wave. But even as attendees celebrated the victories of New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams and others, pols and experts warned that the party should enter 2022 with extreme caution after Republicans demonstrated that they’re not down and out despite the state’s recent hard shifts to the left.
The state GOP’s biggest victories came on Long Island, where they won both the Nassau and Suffolk County district attorney races, hold a strong lead in the Nassau county executive race and picked up almost every countywide position on the island. Although most expected a fight in the Nassau district attorney race, pitting state Sen. Todd Kaminsky against prosecutor Anne Donnelly, the likely loss of Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and defeat of Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini came as a surprise to just about anyone watching the races. Both were expected to cruise to victory.
The red wave even hit New York City to a degree, with Republicans holding onto their existing City Council seats and flipping two others. In Brooklyn, challenger Brian Fox left Council Member Justin Brannan fighting for his life after election night results left the incumbent slightly behind. Brannan remains confident he’ll pull out a victory once the city Board of Elections counts absentee ballots, but it’s significant that the race came down to the wire this way. And on Staten Island, Trump-supporting former Rep. Vito Fossella, who left Congress in 2009 amid a scandal about a secret second family, handily won the borough president race.
All this should come as a warning shot for Democrats as they look ahead to 2022, according to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. He’s the last major Long Island Democrat left standing after Tuesday’s results having already won his own final term in 2019. “This was a message to the Democratic Party, no question about it,” Bellone told City & State at the Somos conference. Looking ahead to the next election, which he is considering entering as a gubernatorial candidate, Bellone didn’t mince words. “I think anyone who looks at these results and isn't concerned about 2022 is either not paying attention or putting their head in the sand,” he said.
This will likely be especially true on Bellone’s home turf of Long Island, where Democratic gains in the state Legislature are still relatively fresh. Although nearly all the state Senate victors in 2018 all successfully won reelection in 2020, the returns this year certainly don’t paint an optimistic picture for the lawmakers. Kaminsky lost his bid for Nassau district attorney in a landslide, and he’ll need to vie for some of the same votes next year. State Sen. Anna Kaplan’s predecessor Elaine Phillips, whom she ousted, has successfully reentered the political world after winning the race for Nassau County comptroller. State Sen. John Brooks, considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats on the island, could be in trouble should a challenger arise unlike last year, as could state Sen. Kevin Thomas, whom rightwing interests spent heavily against in 2020 before a narrow margin of victory. "The Republican Party is showing us that they can win elections through lies and deception…,” Kaplan said in a statement to City & State about whether she has concerns about her own reelection. “Democrats don't play those games, so it's on us to focus on doing the most good for the people we represent, and doing everything it takes to get our supporters to the polls.” A spokesperson for the Kaminsky campaign declined to comment at this time, and state and Nassau County Democratic chair Jay Jacobs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“2022 definitely has dangerous signs, and what happened a couple of days ago only reinforced that,” state Sen. Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris told City & State, noting that bad off-years like this are generally followed up by another tough election the following year. “So I expect it will be very rough waters next year.” Gianaris, who also leads the state Senate’s campaign arm, said the committee has always had a running list of potentially vulnerable candidates to support and said to look at the support given in 2020 for an idea of who it will spend on this year. That year, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee heavily spent on Long Island freshmen battling for their second term, with just former state Sen. Monica Martinez losing.
Still, Democrats expressed cautious optimism about next year, especially noting the cyclical nature of politics that predicts the party of the White House will fare worse after the presidential election the following year. “It was a tough night, but we’ve bounced back in the past, and I have no reason to believe that we won’t this time,” state Sen. Zellnor Myrie told City & State, adding that the rejection of voting rights proposals on the ballot “force(s) introspection for the Democrats.” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie similarly alluded to past off-year losses and subsequent poor showings the following year, most recently in 2009 following President Barack Obama’s election, as reason that Democrats shouldn’t necessarily brace for catastrophic losses next year that go beyond the normal cycle of political ups and downs.
But other observers acknowledge that this year was different. “2009 on steroids,” read an election night text from Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. He noted that pretty much the only casualty that year was Tom Suozzi, who at the time lost his position as Nassau County executive to Republican Ed Mangano. Democrats also lost the brief control they had of the state Senate in 2010, although a variety of local factors played a larger role in those losses than the dysfunction at the federal level that drove this year’s results. Levy added that next year, the hot button issues of bail reform and crime that helped propel Republican candidates to victory may “lose their potency” as Democrats also turn out in greater numbers, but it doesn’t take away from this year’s significant, and sometimes surprising, losses. Gianaris too acknowledged that “the political pendulum swings have been more severe.”
Democrats are split, however, on the best way to come back from the 2021 election. Bellone, as well as fellow potential gubernatorial nominee Suozzi, believe this is a sign that the Democratic Party has swung too far to the left and must become more moderate in order to win back swing voters and more center members of the party. “Unless we fight back against this far-left message, unless we deliver for people and do things that affect their lives in a real way, everybody should be worried about” their reelections and political futures, Suozzi said at a virtual press conference Thursday. Other Democrats disagree, asserting that now more than ever, the party must push forward with its progressive successes in the state and continue them. “I think we run on a record, and I think it's an extremely strong one,” state Sen. Brad Hoylman told City & State, asserting that by next year even more evidence will show recent controversial criminal justice reforms have been successful. “The key is going to be communicating.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the year in which former state Sen. Monica Martinez lost her reelection bid.