Story by Eddie Velazquez and Chris Libonati
Photos by Michelle Gabel and Michael Greenlar
Voters in Central New York delivered a mixed message to politicians on Election Night, helping Democrats keep the state majority, but flipping at least one key seat for Republicans.
Democrats and Republicans alike captured seats by thin margins, with at least two races potentially headed to a recount.
Republicans appear to have won New York’s 22nd Congressional District despite Democrats’ hopes to flip the district. Democrats look likely to concede in New York State Senate’s 50th District. Neither race has been called, however.
Local political analyst Luke Perry, a professor at Utica University, said redistricting, the midterm season and the most competitive gubernatorial election in more than two decades were the major factors that led to the Republican gains.
Across the state, Republicans flipped several Congressional districts. Republican Lee Zeldin ran a tight campaign against Gov. Kathy Hochul, who ultimately won, making her New York’s first elected woman governor.
Democrats have maxed out their power in the state and federal government over the last decade, Perry said
Tuesday’s results were a “regression a bit back more to the mean,” he said.
Central New York picks its players to spur growth
The politicians selected by voters on Tuesday will be the key players who represent Central New York as the region makes huge decisions toward ambitious growth.
Republican Brandon Williams knew that when he took the stage to declare a slim victory in the congressional race on Election Night.
“We’re on the verge of great change,” Williams said. “Whether it’s the I-81 renewal downtown and the incredible promise that holds, certainly Micron’s historic investment in Clay will transform this region and will transform Onondaga County. I will be a partner and a champion for that success.”
The county has three job-creating projects, each more than a $1 billion investment: the teardown of the Interstate 81 viaduct, the teardown of public housing on the city’s South Side and the arrival of Micron in Clay.
This election comes at a turning point for Central New York, where leaders have shifted from talk of preserving a stagnating region to finding ways to maximize its growth.
Williams will replace Republican John Katko as the Syracuse area’s representative in Congress. Katko helped pass the CHIPS Act, which made Micron possible. He also voted for other causes unpopular with Republicans nationally, that benefited Central New York.
Republican Rebecca Shiroff, who leads John Mannion in the New York State Senate’s 50th District, worked in the county’s economic development department as local leaders enticed Micron to the region. Mannion, a Democrat, helped shepherd chips legislation with bipartisan support through the New York State Legislature. Shiroff could now slide into that role.
Both Shiroff and Williams’ are ideologically to the right of their potential predecessors and they’ll have to work with Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans to get anything done in their respective legislative bodies.
But they’ll also want to stay true to the voters who helped buoy them into office.
Shiroff likely won’t win the election without the votes from Oswego County. Oneida and Madison counties helped Williams cross the finish line.
Williams said on Election Night he’d ensure those outer counties benefit from major investments like Micron, too.
Greater Syracuse Labor Council President Mark Spadafore, who supported the local Democratic slate of candidates during this cycle, said Republicans could help keep the Micron project on course.
“Who knows what can happen with a Congressman Williams and a Sen. Shiroff?” Spadafore said. “These are not dumb people. If they see the benefits politically for working with Micron, I think they’re going to do it. The question is do they have workers’ thoughts in mind?”
Onondaga County Republican Party Chair Benedicte Doran said one key figure can be the glue who helps the parties come together and work together: Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon, a moderate Republican.
“He is going to make sure everybody works together because this is too important to not work together,” she said.
Incumbents’ challenge: Courting progressives across the spectrum, region
Democrats in Onondaga County have recently presented voters with two different options: centrist Conole and progressive Dana Balter, who favors left-leaning policies such as universal healthcare. She unsuccessfully attempted to win the seat in 2018 and 2020.
Both ideological wings of the party have failed to send a Central New York Democrat to Washington.
Conole’s and Balter’s failures in Central New York share a common thread: Democrats haven’t been able to win Onondaga County by a wide enough margin to offset losses in surrounding counties.
Conole won Onondaga County by more than 18,000 votes – 54% to Williams’ 43%. That’s more than Balter did in her two races against Katko – but he lost the rest of the district by more than 22,000 votes.
“I think Oneida County was pivotal,” Perry, the political analyst, said.
Local progressives and democratic socialists interviewed by Central Current said they saw Conole as a sympathetic ear or an important actor in the balance of power that could in time deliver for working class Central New Yorkers.
During the Democratic Primary, Indivisible Mohawk Valley, an organization that aligns with the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, supported Sarah Klee Hood, a U.S. Air Force veteran with more reformist positions than Conole.
Katherine Wojciechowski, a member of the group’s steering committee, said they initially had concerns about Conole’s position on cryptocurrency mining in Central New York.
She said Conole told the group he wanted to continue exploring the issue, while Klee Hood outright denounced crypto mining as a threat to the environment.
“She really articulated her message at that point a little bit stronger than Mr. Conole. We are very climate-change-mitigation-oriented in our goals and our stances, and we supported Sarah with that,” she said. “The other thing too was that (he) was not as visible in Oneida County as Sarah was at that point.”
Klee Hood attacked Conole during the Democratic Primary because super political action committee Protect Our Future poured $396,402 into Conole’s campaign in July, according to Federal Election Commission records.
After the primary, Wojciechowski said, Conole “strengthened his resolve” against crypto mining. He also made sure to spend more time in Oneida County, she added.
“We felt very comfortable that he knows us and that he could represent our issues, our needs, and concerns, to the best of his ability,” Wojciechowski said. “He has been listening to us.”
Members of Syracuse DSA, a group outside the two-party system advocating for democratic socialism, were more interested in Conole’s role in the larger narrative of Democratic control of the House of Representatives.
“I think it would put us in a better position,” said Brian Escobar, the organization’s co-chair. “We definitely disagree with some of Conole’s stated positions. We oppose him on topics like fossil fuels.”
Escobar said Syracuse DSA could find ways to work with Conole on organized labor campaigns, as well as gathering support for the various organizations that are operated by and serve people of color in the city.
Democratic candidates have a large tent to appeal to – but those issues are where progressives hope to find common ground.
“There’s a lot of parts of the Democratic coalition that are working class organizations,” Escobar said.
The Zeldin Effect
Republicans’ enthusiasm for Lee Zeldin’s gubernatorial campaign likely drove voters to the polls on Tuesday, experts said.
The race between Zeldin and incumbent Hochul was the tightest gubernatorial race since Republican George Pataki unseated incumbent Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994.
“I haven’t seen that kind of energy around a gubernatorial candidate,” Doran, the county Republican chair, said. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years.”
The enthusiasm for Zeldin’s campaign may have driven down-ballot voting for Republicans. Political analyst Perry said there was a strong correlation between the enthusiasm for Zeldin and the gains Republicans made in Congressional districts.
According to fivethirtyeight.com and New York Times projections, the party could win as many as 11 Congressional districts in New York when results are officially tabulated. It would be the largest Republican contingent New York sent to Washington since the 2000 election when Republicans won 12 districts.
At the state level and in local levels, Republican candidates ran campaigns that hammered Democrats for what they claimed is an alarming surge in crime. Campaigns claimed the culprits are lenient prosecutors and bail reform laws enacted in 2020.
In the week before the election, Zeldin and groups backing him spent about $8.3 million on TV, radio and digital ads, according to data from AdImpact. Some ads referenced crime as a sign that the governor and state Legislature have lost control of New York.
With a majority of wins secured by Democrats in Onondaga County, Democratic Committee Chair Max Rucksdeschel called the Republican campaign’s rhetoric on crime “scare tactics.”
“They try to scare people into voting for Republican candidates, whether or not they actually have any solutions to the problems they’re identifying,” he said.
Democrats fought back against Zeldin’s focus on crime by focusing on root causes of crime. During her interviews on the campaign trail, Sen. Rachel May, who held on to her seat representing New York’s 48th State Senate District, said legislators should work on addressing the causes of crime: poverty, substance abuse, trauma and mental illness.
Ruckdeschel said Republicans’ rhetoric on crime failed in statewide races. He said in his mind Hochul’s win was not in doubt.
Republicans did not win any statewide races, but they made noticeable gains in Congressional districts and smaller inroads in state legislative races.
Doran described “parallel tracks” in messaging between the two parties.
Republicans lamented the state of crime and the economy. Democrats emphasized threats to democracy and reproductive rights
That led to split ticket voting that left muddied results with no clear mandate from voters, Doran said.
“I think we had good messaging and they had messaging that resonated also,” she said. “In the electorate, I don’t think one thing drove it.”
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