How did things go so wrong for House Democrats in New York?
House Democrats had a rough night across the board last Tuesday, but perhaps no other state illustrates the depth of their loss than New York.
Empire State Democrats fared just fine in the top-of-the-ticket races: Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer coasted with more than 60 percent of the vote, and despite the national media attention lavished on upstart Republican gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino, Democrat Andrew Cuomo sailed to victory by a margin of 27 points.
Amazingly, that top of ticket strength had little effect on downballot races.
Ten of New York's Democratic-held House seats were ranked as competitive by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report prior to the election; the 4th District was ranked likely Democratic; the 13th, 22nd and 25th Districts were ranked as lean Democratic; the 1st, 19th, 20th, 23rd and 24th were ranked as toss-ups; and the 29th District was ranked as likely Republican.
Of those ten seats, Republicans picked up at least five -- and maybe as many as seven, if two unresolved races are called in their favor -- putting the Empire State among Ohio and Pennsylvania as the states where Democrats' losses were greatest last week.
Former Gov. George Pataki (R) weighed in on the GOP's wins Monday morning, telling ABC News that Republicans "got massacred" at the top of the ticket but may well end up with seven House seats as well as control of the state Senate.
In a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 2.5 million and where statewide Democrats were pounding their GOP opponents, how did Democrats lose so badly?
In talking to a handful of Empire State strategists, they offered several explanations for what happened.
* It was a wave election. First and foremost, Republican and independent turnout was driven by the same thing that drove voters elsewhere in the country: discontent about the way things have been going in Washington. Statewide, Democrats make up roughly 50 percent of New York's electorate, Republicans make up 25 percent and independents make up the other quarter. Exit polls show that last Tuesday, 46 percent of those who turned out were Democrats, 27 percent were Republicans and 27 percent were independents.
To its credit, the National Republican Congressional Committee saw an opening in many of these seats and invested resources in about half of them in an effort to expand the playing field.
Also worth noting: Even Democrats who voted against unpopular national Democratic agenda items such as health care reform, including Reps. Michael McMahon and Michael Arcuri, ended up losing.
"In those cases, I'd say they came in with the wave and came out with a wave," said New York Republican consultant David Catalfamo, adding that voters were voting "generally against the overreach of government, and that was felt more generically."
* Upstate New York voters swung back to the GOP: Democrats saw their recent gains in districts long-held by Republicans vanish last Tuesday. The 29th District seat of former Rep. Eric Massa (D) had been held by two Republicans before Massa and was considered by both parties to be a shoo-in for the GOP, but other Democratic-held upstate seats such as the 20th District (Rep. Scott Murphy), the 24th District (Arcuri) and the 25th District (Rep. Dan Maffei's race, which remains too close to call) had only recently shifted toward the Democrats. Republicans fell short in the 23rd District seat held by Democratic Rep. Bill Owens, in part due to the three-way dynamic of the race, but that seat too was a longtime GOP district and observers believe that it will be a big target next cycle.
"It's sort of an extension of the Rust Belt, where manufacturing jobs were sent out of the state, and jobs and the economy are a big factor for these small-town voters," said one Republican strategist, noting that Democrats faced similar fates in nearby Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The voter registration numbers upstate bear that demographic sentiment out. While Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2.5 million statewide, outside the New York City area, the two parties are almost at parity, according to the latest statistics from the state Secretary of State's office. That's one reason why GOP wins in New York were easier than, say, in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, where registered Republicans rank in the teens or lower.
* Catholic voters: Veteran New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf noted that western New York is one of the most heavily Catholic parts of the country, and that Catholics are a key swing constituency. "It was religion and region that made the difference, not party ID," said Sheinkopf.
Statewide exit poll data on religion isn't available, but national exit poll data bears that out. Nationally, Catholics made up 25 percent of the electorate in 2010; they voted 54 percent to 44 percent for Republicans. In 2008, they made up 26 percent of the electorate and swung 55 percent to 42 percent for Democrats. In 2006, they were 26 percent and voted for Democrats 55 percent to 44 percent. But in 2004, they made up 27 percent of the electorate and backed Republicans 50 percent to 49 percent.
Do Republicans' big gains in New York state mean that they're here to stay? Depends on who you ask.
"New York is still very much a blue state, with 2.5 million more registered Democrats than Republicans, which makes our having flipped between 5 and 7 Congressional seats from Democrat to Republican, the most in any State, an even bigger accomplishment," said state Republican Party spokesperson Alex Carey.
Sheinkopf, however, cautioned against judging too quickly.
"You cannot judge a realignment by one election," Sheinkopf said. "What you can say is that the romance with Democrats may be coming to an end; that people are probably going to register more as independents than as Republicans or Democrats -- which we know is a step toward Republicanism -- and that the era of Democratic dominance may be over at the local level."
| November 8, 2010; 2:50 PM ET
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