Data for Progress (@DataProgress) uses data to illuminate the most important stories in the country. To that end, we’re working with Robert Wheel (@BobbyBigWheel) to provide comprehensive coverage of the 2018 election cycle in our series, "data for politics." - Sean
Robert Wheel (@BobbyBigWheel)
New York has its congressional primaries on Tuesday and by my count Democrats have a notable race in twelve of the state’s 27 congressional districts. Which is great! Primaries are healthy for parties by forcing voters to decide what issues are important to them and giving candidates an idea of what voters want. Even longtime incumbents should be forced to defend their records, especially in safe seats where winning your initial election is too often seen as a lifetime sinecure.
The Intra-Democratic Party Primaries
Incumbents face noteworthy challenges in four districts - the 9th, 12th, 14th and 16th. And I’d be surprised if any of them lost. Heck, I’d be surprised if any of them get less than 60%. For all the centrist hand-wringing about a “Tea Party of the Left”, one has yet to materialize. The only incumbent who came close to losing in 2018 was Dan Lipinski, who sided with Trump on a number of high profile issues and had liberal outside groups spending significant money against him. None of these New York incumbents being challenged have any such weaknesses.
That’s not to say that they’re paragons - each of the incumbents is far from ideal for a safe-seat Democrat. But these incumbents’ problems pale in comparison to their key strength in the eyes of Democratic primary voters - they’re willing to stand up to Trump. And with Trump shifting the Overton window so far to the right that Republican Congressmen are defending child concentration camps, exasperated Democrats will gladly fall in line behind imperfect politicians who nevertheless seem like Mensheviks by comparison.
The highest profile race is in the 14th District, where incumbent Joe Crowley is facing a challenge from the left from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ocasio-Cortez’s viral campaign video gained national attention as she pointed out that Crowley is too close to special interests and out of touch with the district, even though his voting record over the past decade is solidly liberal. Crowley’s closeness to the corrupt Queens Democratic machine is reason enough to support Ocasio-Cortez, but it’s also refreshing to see a young woman of color with an unabashedly left agenda. The problem is that left-liberal primaries haven’t been going the left’s way in 2018, and I suspect this race won’t be any different. Ultimately Crowley’s institutional advantages and solidly liberal voting record, along with his reflexive opposition to Trump, should carry him through.
In the neighboring 12th District, Carolyn Maloney has a different set of baggage than Crowley. For the better part of the past decade she’s been one of Congress’s most vocal anti-vaxxers and voted against the Iran deal in 2015. She’s backtracked on both, but Democrats can do better in one of the most liberal seats in the nation. The problem is that they could still do better than her challenger, Suraj Patel. He’s running on a left platform and is a better ideological fit for the seat than Maloney. But his ties to the district are weaker, and his history of advocacy is much thinner than Ocasio-Cortez. Some voters may see his challenge as opportunistic, but a weak showing by Maloney could open the door to a left challenge from any number of ambitious Manhattan politicians in 2020.
Further south in the 9th District, incumbent Yvette Clarke hasn’t committed any major ideological apostasies but isn’t seen as a very effective legislator either. That’s why the New York Times endorsed Adem Bunkeddeko over her. Clarke’s lethargy might mean that she actually ends up doing worse than Crowley or Maloney, but she’s also a female incumbent with a male challenger, and 2018 doesn’t seem like a year when a Democratic electorate backs the former (which may also harm Patel).
And finally in the 16th District, incumbent Eliot Engel supported the Iraq War and opposed the Iran Deal. He said he regrets both votes, but it’s still a problem considering he’d lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee if Democrats retake the House. His main challenger is local businessman Jonathan Lewis, who’s running on a pro-reform platform. But Lewis has failed to generate anything beyond bland platitudes against Engel, and seems to align with the incumbent on foreign policy. I suspect Engel will do best of any of the four incumbents facing serious primary challenges.
The Republican-Held and Open Seats
In 2006, Democrats picked up three seats in New York on their way to winning the majority in the House. In 2010, Republicans picked up six seats in New York on their way to winning it back. The state may be reliably blue, but there are a ton of swingy areas outside the urban core of New York City that are key to winning back the House. And with Democratic energy at a seemingly unprecedented level for a midterm election, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that almost all of the Republican seats in New York that Democrats are targeting have contested primaries. Starting on Long Island and moving upstate, with expected winners in bold:
NY-01: The First District is centered on the eastern end of Long Island. Fifteen percent of votes come from the upscale Hamptons but the remainder comes from blue-collar, New York City exurbs. County legislator Kate Browning is the local party’s choice in the primary and in Suffolk County that usually means victory. But Browning faces Manhattan rich guy Perry Gershon, who’s running for Congress from his Hamptons summer home. Gershon would be a disaster of a nominee, so Democrats should hope she pulls out the victory. The winner would face incumbent and Newsmax regular Lee Zeldin in the fall in a seat that backed Obama twice but swung hard to Trump.
NY-02: In the Second District, Liuba Grechen Shirley has captured activist verve far better than the party-backed Duwayne Gregory. The Suffolk machine is behind Gregory as well, but he’s running a listless campaign, and the establishment seems to be more invested in making sure Browning advances. She’ll face an uphill climb against incumbent Rep. Peter King in November, who’s survived a swingy district in past Democratic waves. Perhaps running against tearing apart families at the border will be a winning issue in a suburban seat against an unrepentant Trumpist like King.
NY-11: Max Rose is the party-backed candidate in Staten Island’s 11th District. There are 5 lesser known candidates running as insurgents but none have done enough to separate themselves from the pack here. The real action will be on the Republican side, as incumbent Dan Donovan faces a challenge from ex-representative and ex-con Michael Grimm for insufficient fealty to President Grandpa. He could become the third Republican incumbent to lose a primary this year - a fourth has been forced into a runoff after failing to get a majority in the primary.
NY-19: It’s tough making sense of the crowded field in the 19th District. The three frontrunners appear to be Antonio Delgado, Pat Ryan and Brian Flynn, with Gareth Rhodes, David Clegg, Jeff Beals and Erin Collier also in the running. Delgado’s a compelling candidate, but he has flimsy ties to the seat. Ryan is too, but he’s faced questions about his security company targeting left-wing activists. Meanwhile, Flynn’s the leftmost of that trio, as he explained in his upbeat ad that’s pretty indicative of the tone of Democratic primaries once you get outside the Twitter bubble. So Democrats should hope for a good showing from him. One wildcard here is Collier, who got into the race late but as the only woman in a seven-candidate field could win the nomination thanks to a splintered vote. The winner here would face freshman Rep. John Faso in the general in a race that will be around the tipping point for Democrats to win back the House.
NY-21: In the 21st District, Tedra Cobb is the party’s favorite to win the nomination, and, like Max Rose in the 11th, it’s unclear if any of her five opponents can pull away from the rest of the pack. Former MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan seemed like he might be a viable insurgent contender until he said that if he voted in 2016 it would’ve been for Trump. Cobb should win nomination, but incumbent Elise Stefanik would be favored in November in yet another New York seat that went for Obama twice before flipping to Trump.
NY-23: The 23rd District should have been a prime target for left wingers. Its voting bases are a liberal college town and an economically depressed area that swung hard against Democrats over the past decade, but none of the candidates here have really stood out., And national left wing groups failed to coalesce behind one, which would’ve been a far more efficient use of their resources than backing candidates like Laura Moser in seats where they were up against a party-backed standard-bearer. Accordingly, Rep. Tom Reed looks like a safe bet to win re-election, even though this seat went for Obama in 2008 and Reed nearly lost in 2012.
NY-24: The nastiest primary in the state will be decided in the 24th District, where John Katko failed to attract a star Democratic recruit, in spite of the fact that his district not only voted for Obama twice but Clinton as well. Local parties cleared the field for a B-list candidate, professor Dana Balter, but the DCCC wasn’t impressed with her and recruited another B-lister to run as well - failed Syracuse mayoral candidate Juanita Perez Williams. This set up an ugly feud between the national and local establishment, one which could hobble the party in a critical seat. Balter’s hit Williams hard on past support for pro-life causes, but a recent poll had Williams leading 45-32. Whoever does win will need to work hard to unite the party heading into the fall.
NY-25: Finally, the primary in the 25th should be for a safe Democratic seat. Former Rep. Louise Slaughter died in April, and the primary will decide who replaces her in Congress. The 25th reliably votes Democratic at the presidential level, but Slaughter nearly lost in 2014. So Democrats should be wary of nominating a weak candidate who might not be able to hold the seat in the future,especially as it’s almost assured of taking on more conservative territory in the next round of redistricting. Unfortunately, the party has coalesced behind Assemblyman Joe Morelle, a Cuomo toady with #MeToo issues. His primary opponents haven’t gained much traction, which is unfortunate and could actually end up putting this seat in play in future cycles.
CO-01: I know Sean is geeked for the CO-01 primary, but Diana DeGette, like her New York counterparts, simply hasn’t enraged the primary electorate enough to get them to throw her out. That said, she isn’t taking Saira Rao’s campaign too seriously, and that complacency could lead to a surprisingly narrow win.
CO-06: Jason Crow is far from an ideal candidate (carpetbagger who represented payday lenders), but Levi Tillemann’s left-wing bid has gone nowhere, becoming most notable for him secretly taping Steny Hoyer and pepper spraying himself. Crow should win easily.
CO-03: Diane Mitsch Bush is the favorite over Karl Hanlon, as whenever there are two viable candidates in a 2018 Democratic primary you should always bet on the woman.
MD-06: Maryland only has one House primary worth watching - in MD-06, a Democratic-leaning open seat. Self-funding Democrats have had a rough 2018, but liquor magnate David Trone hopes to reverse that trend. His main challenger, Aruna Miller, is a woman of color so we all know who Sean is cheering for here.