The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP can thank suburban N.Y. for its slim control of the House

How a red wave in a solidly blue state helped tip the balance

Mike Lawler, Republican candidate for New York’s 17th Congressional District, greets supporters during an election-night party Nov. 9 in Pearl River, N.Y. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP)

With Republicans poised to take control of the U.S. House in January by one of the slimmest margins in history, it is clear that the much-anticipated “red wave” never materialized in this month’s midterm elections.

Except in New York state, particularly in the suburbs of New York City — where Republicans flipped three House districts, including defeating Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. These victories, plus a fourth pickup in New York’s Hudson Valley north of the suburbs, provided Republicans with crucial momentum to assume narrow control of the House.

Some are puzzling over solidly blue New York providing Republicans with the margin they needed to retake the House. Yet, history reveals that since the 1970s, New York City’s suburbs — Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, and Westchester and Rockland counties to the north, which span six congressional districts — have been a crucial swing area that has at times been pivotal for catapulting conservative Republicans into power and serving as a bellwether for the state and nation.

Control of the House and the presidency has aligned in nearly every election cycle since 1980 with the voter tallies in these suburban counties. The 2022 midterm elections proved to be no exception.

Politically, New York has three regions: overwhelmingly blue New York City (save for Staten Island), which is politically balanced by Upstate — 53 predominantly conservative, mostly rural counties that span much of the state’s surface area. That leaves the decisive swing region: the “downstate suburbs,” including Long Island.

These suburbs took on increasing importance as their population exploded in the decades after World War II. As the economy boomed and the United States confronted a severe housing shortage, legislators responded with affordable Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgages tucked into the GI Bill and legislation such as the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act.

These federal policies, along with private investment, drove an unprecedented suburban boom. Mostly White Americans (due to FHA redlining and other discriminatory real estate practices) fled rental units in major cities to become first-generation middle-class suburban homeowners — and the parents of the postwar baby boom.

In New York, this pattern gave rise to the populous downstate suburbs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Nassau County grew by 93 percent from 1950 to 1960, with adjacent Suffolk County, also on Long Island, seeing a whopping 142 percent growth rate. The area was awash in new construction, famously including the potato fields that enterprising developer William J. Levitt converted into Levittown — an all-White planned community of nearly identical mass-produced tract homes. These suburbs all shared similar demographics: Rockland County, northwest of the city, reported a population in 1960 that was 95 percent White, with over 60 percent of adults married and roughly one child under the age of 5 for every other woman of childbearing age.

Politically, most of these suburban transplants had been New Deal Democrats in the city. They were the descendants of the Southern and Eastern European immigrants who were struggling factory workers and laborers — a group that benefited tremendously from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal anti-poverty programs.

But as these transplants became more economically secure and migrated to the suburbs, they also migrated to the Republican Party — especially when faced with the hefty property taxes needed to fund the rapid growth of their new communities.

Originally, however, they were moderate Republicans, typified by New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, who was elected first in 1958 and was a (very wealthy) resident of Westchester County. Unlike the small faction of conservative Republicans who dominated the rural areas Upstate, suburban Republicans like Rockefeller tended to support taxpayer-funded projects designed to fuel economic growth. After all, suburban residents benefited from public investments like the Long Island Expressway that made life in their new communities easier.

But in the 1970s, as the postwar economy slowed to a recessionary crawl and New York City faced bankruptcy, the tectonic plates of New York’s suburban politics began shifting — presenting an opportunity for the conservative Republicans Upstate to expand their ranks using a three-pronged approach.

First, the economic struggles of the 1970s made traditional conservative promises to lower taxes attractive to suburban homeowners struggling under the weight of exorbitant property taxes. Many first-generation suburban homemakers also saw the promise of tax cuts as a lifeline to avoid having to work outside the home to make ends meet — something they saw as a profound step backward for their families, because their less economically secure mothers had worked outside of the home, especially during the Great Depression.

Second, many suburban voters found new conservative promises to maintain “law and order” appealing after years of local media coverage in New York City of social and political unrest, rioting and both real and perceived upticks in urban crime — even though such tumult rarely touched their own communities.

Finally, the third piece of conservatives’ newfound appeal in the suburbs was anchored in cultural traditionalism and religion. Nearly half (as high as 46 percent) of Nassau County residents identified as Catholic at various points in the 1960s, with similar demographics prevailing in nearby suburban counties. When the state legalized abortion in 1970, several Catholic homemakers on Long Island formed the New York State Right to Life Party to fight legal abortion and other feminist reforms that their church opposed and many viewed as an affront to their prized roles as full-time homemakers. Conservative Republicans augmented their coalition by joining forces with these activists — and winning the votes of suburbanites, particularly Catholic ones, who were upset to see most Democrats and moderate Republicans, including most prominently Gov. Rockefeller, becoming stalwart supporters of abortion rights in the state.

These political shifts enabled the conservative Ronald Reagan to capture New York in 1980 by combining traditional Republican strength Upstate with a targeted appeal to the downstate suburbs. He appointed William J. Casey of Long Island to manage his campaign, and promised to lower taxes, defend traditional family values, and restore American prestige abroad and tranquility at home. Reagan’s victory carried other conservatives into office in the suburbs, notably Long Island’s own Al D’Amato, who beat the long-serving moderate Republican U.S. Sen. Jacob K. Javits in both the GOP primary and the general election when Javits ran on a third-party line.

Conservative Republicans have continued to do well in these suburbs in the decades since 1980, with Democrats only making inroads there when their party wins the White House or in big blue wave midterm elections like 2018. Even in these moments, Democrats have never captured all the downstate suburban districts.

And since 1980, Reagan’s formula for winning statewide election in New York has become the playbook: Candidates must run up the numbers in their stronghold region and hold on to at least a portion of the populous downstate suburbs. This strategy enabled Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul and Sen. Charles E. Schumer to win statewide election this month, though by smaller margins than usual because of their weakness in the downstate suburbs. Their campaigns turned out strong numbers in New York City and the urban Democratic pockets Upstate — in part by promising to protect abortion rights, just months after the Supreme Court ended the right to an abortion nationally. Plus, they held on to a portion of the downstate suburbs (they both won Westchester County).

Their victories bolstered New York’s image as a blue state. Yet, in a climate with high inflation and a perceived uptick in crime in New York City, conservative Republicans unsurprisingly did well in the downstate suburbs, which kept Schumer’s, and especially Hochul’s, margins of victory down. Republicans swept five of the six suburban congressional districts, including all four districts on Long Island. That enabled the GOP to survive setbacks elsewhere across the country to capture the House by a narrow margin.