During a recent weekend, Long Island played host to national bigwigs from both parties. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis rallied with GOP gubernatorial candidate Rep. Lee Zeldin in Suffolk County, while First Lady Jill Biden phone-banked with Gov. Kathy Hochul on the island. Their presence was unusual – it’s not every day that New York elections garner national attention, let alone the happenings in New York City’s suburbs.
DeSantis and Biden have not been the only national figures to wade into New York elections, with appearances from the likes of former President Bill in Westchester, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Kamala Harris in Manhattan. But Long Island still holds a unique place within the New York election ecosystem this election, making it one of the most watched areas of the state, and the whole country. The region remains a crucial swing area that both Hochul and Zeldin find themselves fiercely competing for as the polls in their race tighten. What’s more, three of the four congressional districts on Long Island have no incumbent, open races that could tip the balance of Congress.
More locally though, Long Island also has some of the most competitive down-ballot races in the state. Though they have not received the kind of attention the congressional and gubernatorial races have received, a large number of the island’s nine state Senate seats are once again in play just two cycles after a blue wave flipped many of those seats Democratic. Coming off a landmark 2021 election cycle that turned nearly every county-level office on Long Island red, Republicans may have the opportunity to win enough seats to recreate the once formidable GOP voting bloc that controlled the area – and with it, influence in the state Legislature lost since 2019.
The Long Island Nine
Long Island has long been a battleground up and down the ballot. Its voting trends shift depending on the year and who holds power at every level of government, from president to town councils. This year is no different as congressional candidates duke it out for newly redistricted seats and gubernatorial candidates trade barbs in the suburbs.
The state Senate is not much different, although up until recently, the Long Island Nine, as political observers had dubbed the voting bloc, remained a stronghold for Republicans, with just the odd Democrat breaking through for short periods. That changed in 2018, when Democrats won back control of the upper chamber, thanks in no small part to seats flipped on the island. The Democrats became their own voting bloc, with former state Sen. Todd Kaminsky the unofficial dean of the delegation as the most senior member at the time.
When Democrats won a supermajority in the state Senate in 2020, the death knell that many observers believed tolled for Republicans in 2018 simply got louder. GOP power in New York had dwindled to such an extent that it seemed like a comeback would take a miracle. Things have changed a lot since 2020.
The shift in thinking arguably began just last year, when Republicans dominated local elections on Long Island. Running heavily on fears of crime, the GOP picked up both the Nassau and Suffolk County district attorney's offices, unseated the Democratic Nassau County executive incumbent, flipped the Suffolk County Legislature red and expanded its majority in the Nassau County Legislature. It was a veritable bloodbath for Democrats. “Democrats are really concerned that the waves that washed out their candidates last year at local elections are still as high – or even rising higher – this year,” Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, told City & State. “Particularly in the power of fear of crime.”
The abortion variable
Conventional political wisdom would suggest that a midterm election like 2022 would favor Republicans thanks to a Democratic president in office with lagging favorability. That changed when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, suddenly making abortion rights into a national rallying cry for Democrats. It seemed to turn the tides very quickly, leading to a handful of surprise election results before November, including the special election for the 19th Congressional District upstate. And polling several months ago indicated that Republicans perhaps had reason to worry.
In one of the most competitive state Senate races on Long Island, state Sen. Anna Kaplan has focused heavily on abortion and women’s rights as part of her campaign against former state Sen. Jack Martins, a Republican looking to win back a version of his old seat. “(Women) see for themselves how this Supreme Court literally has taken their rights away,” Kaplan told City & State. “Women, at this point, I don’t think trust Republicans.” She dismissed concerns about the 2021 election results, pointing to the conservative Supreme Court decision revoking the federal right to an abortion creating an entirely new atmosphere.
She’s not alone in her campaign strategy. Hochul focused heavily on abortion rights earlier in the campaign, Rep. Pat Ryan suggested that women enraged by the Supreme Court ruling helped propel him to victory, and other Democrats have made protecting women’s rights a cornerstone of their campaigns. But polling has shown that abortion rights don’t top the list of voters’ concerns – the economy and crime consistently hold the top places. And Republicans have campaigned on those two issues heavily since the beginning. “People are afraid,” Martins told City & State. “They’re concerned about the future, they’re concerned about… their ability to stay in New York state.” He added that criminal justice reforms passed in recent years, bail reform the most prominent, have come back to negatively affect Democrats in areas of the state like Long Island. Hochul’s recent campaign shift to focus more heavily on public safety issues rather than abortion or Zeldin’s ties to Donald Trump speaks volumes about the truth behind Martins’ words.
A shift in power
The race between Kaplan and Martins for the 7th Senate District is hardly the only competitive race on Long Island, though it serves as a poignant microcosm for the partisan divides prevalent in many of the other races. The vacancy left by Kaminsky could well flip Republican, and Democratic state Sen. John Brooks’ hold of his seat is tenuous at best. With the decision of state Sen. James Gaughran to retire because of redistricting, Democrats have already lost at least one Long Island member.
Republicans enter the election with two incumbents and one candidate expected to win an open seat. By the end of election night, it’s entirely possible the party has picked up three or even four more seats, shifting the balance of power on the island back to the GOP. While victories there alone would not win back the state Senate as a whole, it could give Republicans back some of the leverage they have lost. “Because you only need one or two rogue Democrats to say ‘I’ll vote this with the Republicans,’” Mike Dawidziak, a Long Island pollster and political commentator, told City & State. “It puts everything in play, really, is what it does.”
The tides may be just right for Republicans to win big on Long Island, in no small part because of the attention at the top of the ticket. “The other problem for Long Island (Democratic) Senate candidates… is that the top of the ticket doesn't look as strong as it did some months ago,” Levy said, referencing Hochul’s lagging poll numbers that have put Zeldin within striking distance in recent weeks. “Kathy Hochul’s coattails are almost nonexistent in Suffolk, and not nearly as long as they had been in Nassau.” Following the Dobbs decision on abortion, reproductive freedom seemed like it would serve as a golden ticket for Democrats, with Hochul as the first female governor of the state uniquely poised to take advantage of the national tailwinds. “I’m surprised the fervor isn't as as much on the other side, quite honestly, because I did think that women would would kind of band together on the abortion rights issue,” Dawidziak said, comparing Republican passion on crime and the economy to the Democratic rallying cry. “But that doesn't seem to be happening in New York.”
But the tides have changed quickly throughout the election cycle, and time still remains for them to change again. At the same time, both sides attempt to make claims of inaccurate polling in their favor. Kaplan spoke about a fundraising event she attended with many women who told her they did not answer pollsters who try to get in touch. “And they absolutely are in our camp,” Kaplan said. “They absolutely understand what’s at stake and what they need to do.” Republicans, meanwhile, have long held that polls understate the strength of their candidates and enthusiasm of its voters. In a region like Long Island, such claims – if true – could have significant impacts on the outcome of the elections taking place there in spite of what polling may have predicted. For a battleground like Long Island, a few percentage points could very well redefine the balance of power at nearly every level of government.