Campaigns & Elections

Sean Patrick Maloney is running where he lives

Winning a Trump district has been key to the Democrat’s political identity. Now he’s got a new district – and a target on his back.

Sean Patrick Maloney staked his claim early to this redrawn congressional seat.

Sean Patrick Maloney staked his claim early to this redrawn congressional seat. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney is just running for Congress where he lives. But it’s never been that simple.

The five-term Democrat is facing a difficult reelection battle against Republican Assembly Member Michael Lawler in a Lower Hudson Valley district. Maloney, who is chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, wants a convincing win to prove his vision for winning suburban swing seats and determining Democratic dominance. Lawler wants to provide a critical punch of the election cycle, helping to flip the House for the GOP by unseating the man whose job it was to keep it.

This matchup, like so many others in the Empire State, was born of the redistricting fracas. The sharply divided redistricting commission couldn’t come to an agreement on maps, so the Democratic-dominated state Legislature drew its own and passed them into law. Maloney was gearing up to run against Orange County Assembly Member Colin Schmitt when the state’s highest court tossed out the congressional map because it was gerrymandered. A court-appointed special master drew maps prioritizing competitive races and shook up Maloney’s plans.

The new 17th Congressional District includes all of Rockland County, the northern half of Westchester County, all of Putnam County and a sliver of Dutchess County. It’s entirely suburban – it doesn’t include cities like White Plains or Poughkeepsie. Some residents commute to work in New York City – or at least a greater proportion did before the COVID-19 pandemic. And most of that district is entirely new to Maloney. According to an analysis shared with City & State, about 25% of the population have been redistricted from the 18th Congressional District, which Maloney has represented for the past decade. That’s the portion in northeastern Westchester and Putnam, and includes Maloney himself. Another 2% of residents were in the old 19th District. And the largest portion of the district, about 73%, including northwestern Westchester and all of Rockland came from the old 17th District. That included Lawler, who lives in Pearl River in Rockland County. 

Put simply, Maloney may be the congressional incumbent, but the number of constituents in the new district who have been represented by him before (about 196,000) isn’t that much greater than the number of people in the district living in Lawler’s Assembly District 97 in southern Rockland County (about 146,000). In the new congressional district of 777,000 residents, both Maloney and Lawler will have to win over a whole lot of new voters in the district if they want to claim victory on Nov. 8.

That wasn’t necessarily going to be the case for Maloney. After all, the majority of his current constituents were drawn into the new 18th Congressional District. While most of first-term Rep. Mondaire Jones’ constituents were drawn into the new 17th District. Since Maloney was elected to chair the DCCC to hold on to Democratic seats, it seemed logical to stick with those districts. It would maximize the number of incumbents running, and even if Maloney didn’t live in the district and neither did Jones, they were both close to the respective borders – and members of Congress don’t legally have to live in the district they represent anyway.

Instead, Maloney claimed the 17th District – he wanted to run where he lives, after all. (And some speculated Maloney may have wanted the district with more Democratic voters, rather than the swingier one). Jones was forced to make a choice with no great options. Run a primary against Maloney – powerful, experienced, with tons of money. Run a primary against Rep. Jamaal Bowman – a fellow Black progressive lawmaker. Or not run at all. He chose a surprising fourth option: move to Brooklyn and run in the open 10th Congressional District. (He ended up getting third in the primary and will be out of Congress at the end of the year, with Maloney’s choice playing no small role.)

Some congressional colleagues and Democratic insiders – especially progressives – were furious. It looked like the white, gay, party leader Maloney had bullied the gay, young, Black rising star out of his seat. Maloney’s main defense at the time? He’s just running where he lives. A couple months later, he admitted to News 12 Westchester he didn’t handle it well, but “I chose to run where I live.”

That redistricting incident was the origin story for state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi’s primary run against him. Campaigning as a progressive outsider against the more moderate, establishment player Maloney was never going to be easy. And it got ugly, as a Biaggi supporter filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics accusing Maloney of having a staffer serve as a personal assistant. Biaggi was vastly outspent, and Maloney ended up winning 66% to 33%. But her run was made even more difficult by the fact that she had never represented any part of the district. And moved across Westchester County, from Pelham to North Castle to live in the 17th District. Maloney was running where he lives – and that may have helped him secure the support of all the local political power players. Of course, Maloney couldn’t criticize Biaggi for relocating too much – he himself had moved to the district to run. In 2012, Maloney moved from Manhattan to Cold Spring in Putnam County to challenge Republican Rep. Nan Hayworth after redistricting left her vulnerable. He flipped the seat, 52%-48%.

In the years since, Maloney built his reputation as a Democrat who can win in Trump country. In the country’s highly partisan environment, he was just one of just 12 Democrats who won a district Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. He was running where he lives, and winning. That was his main pitch to Democrats on Capitol Hill as he campaigned for DCCC chair in 2020, and it worked. He got the role heading into the midterms of Democratic President Joe Biden’s first term – a cycle when the party in power historically loses seats. But he had a vision: Don’t be preachy. Focus on getting stuff done, and win suburban seats.

That chair role has also put a target on Maloney’s back, first within his own party. He has always been seen as ambitious – he unsuccessfully ran for state attorney general twice – and his tough-talking, confident manner has been seen by critics as arrogance and selfishness. There were also real disagreements over electoral strategy, like how much to focus on former President Donald Trump, and whether Democrats in swing districts should be breaking with their party on key votes. While Maloney was praised as a unifier for ending the DCCC “blacklist” for consultants and political groups that opposed incumbents, he has taken heat for devoting resources to reverse psychology TV ads meant to elevate bad Republican candidates.

Of course, all will be forgiven if Democrats hold on to the House majority in November – or even keep it close. Prognosticators all seem to think it’s likely that Republicans flip it.

Still, the path to a House majority runs through where Maloney lives, in the New York City suburbs. By the numbers, Maloney should be in a good position. Biden voters in the district outnumber Trump voters 55%-45%, according to the CUNY Center for Urban Research’s Redistricting & You website. That 10-point advantage is double the five points Biden had on Trump in Maloney’s old district. Maloney had five times the cash on hand Lawler did, as of the latest Federal Election Commission filing in August, $2.4 million to $436,000. As of Sept. 22, FiveThirtyEight’s model showed Maloney winning 89 out of 100 times. And Democrats are feeling good after Rep. Pat Ryan’s victory over Republican Marc Molinaro in the August special election for the nearby 19th Congressional District.

“Barring a seismic shift in the political landscape, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney should sail to victory,” Democratic political consultant Chris Sosa told City & State. His reputation was damaged among some Democrats who felt that he pushed Jones out of the seat, Sosa said, “but none of that will meaningfully depress voter turnout for Maloney in such a polarized political climate.” Lawler’s fundraising didn’t impress Sosa, who called him “uninspiring.”

But Lawler may be getting a boost. The National Republican Congressional Committee released a poll in September showing Lawler with a 4-point lead. The partisan poll was viewed with some deserved skepticism by outsiders, but the NRCC gladly added Lawler to its Young Guns program and will devote resources to the race. Now, a Republican super PAC is spending $1 million on Lawler, running an ad saying “liberal Sean Patrick Maloney” is lying about the health of the economy. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is coming to Westchester County in October to fundraise for Lawler. And the suburban Assembly member even got a coveted live interview on Fox News.

But Lawler is running where he lives too. So in the suburban, Democratic-leaning district, he’s positioning himself as a moderate Republican. He was a Trump delegate at the Republican National Convention in 2016 but has been careful to distance his political brand from the Florida resident. Lawler disavowed the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 and even offered some light criticism of how Trump seemed to encourage the violence. He is a rare Republican congressional candidate to have fully accepted that Biden won the 2020 presidential election, according to FiveThirtyEight’s tracker. He’s pro-life, but believes in exceptions, and is trying to focus his campaign on crime and inflation.

Will voters in the 17th District – most of whom have never been represented by either candidate before – be persuaded? It gives Maloney a chance to test his political mettle not just on a national scale, but in his own backyard – running for Congress where he lives.