While Americans often see New York as a bastion of liberalism, the reality is far more complex. The 2020 House election in New York’s 22nd Congressional District, which covers a large swath of central New York state, exemplified the complexity. It made headlines for being one of the most closely and bitterly fought races in the country.
Republican Claudia Tenney was declared the victor on Feb. 5, 2021, more than three months after the election, by a margin of only 109 out of 312,087 votes cast. The presidential result in the district was less evenly split, but still close: President Donald Trump won 54 percent of the vote, even as Joe Biden prevailed in the urban and suburban areas of Utica, Rome, Binghamton and Watertown.
This outcome reflects two realities: First, most central New York counties have chosen Republican candidates for president in every election since the party first appeared on the ballot in 1856. But, second, it is not your average conservative stronghold. Its traditional loyalties to the Republican Party extend back to a period long before the left-right divisions that dominate contemporary politics emerged. These bonds have withstood past transformations in predominant party loyalties, remaining Republican during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four terms in the White House and resisting the shifts of the Kennedy-Johnson years when firm Democratic areas, particularly in the South, became Republican areas, while old Republican strongholds in the North (nearly all of New England, for example) became firmly Democratic.
Yet with partisan divisions now widening and yoked to deep ideological fissures, this is an area where both parties have everything to play for. It will be a key political battleground in 2022 and beyond.
When the Republican Party formed in the 1850s, central New York was one of the most solidly anti-slavery parts of the country. The philanthropist Gerrit Smith, who lived between Utica and Syracuse, had already co-founded the Liberty Party, the nation’s first national political party committed to ending slavery, and stood as its presidential candidate during the 1840s. Central New York was part of the upstate “burned-over district,” a region where spiritual revivalism went hand-in-hand with social radicalism in the antebellum period. The Republicans took a more moderate stance on slavery than Smith but had a stronger chance of winning office. Central New York abolitionists and more moderate former ‘Conscience’ Whigs and ‘Barnburner’ Democrats, therefore, came together in support of Lincoln in 1860.
Outside the main cities in the largely rural region, most people have family ties to the Republican Party dating back to this initial choice to embrace it four or five generations ago. Republicans dominated the region throughout the Civil War and in the Reconstruction era. Even in times when partisan alliances changed — during the New Deal and later, during the civil rights era — central New York maintained its Republican tilt. Intergenerational loyalty could very well explain the continued attachment to the Republican Party in this region, especially since there has never been a major shock there comparable to the one, for example, the South experienced when the Johnson administration pushed forward the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which drove a major change in voting patterns.
In fact, as civil rights realigned politics in the 1960s, the cities of Syracuse, Utica and Rome were thriving. Their combined population exceeded a million. Already an industrial powerhouse before World War II, central New York continued to grow and prosper because of its booming manufacturing sector in the 1960s. Griffiss Air Force Base employed 8,500 in Rome. General Electric’s plants in Syracuse and Utica offered relatively good-paying manufacturing jobs to tens of thousands. It employed 17,000 at its Electronics Park plant near Syracuse alone in the mid-1960s. Carrier Corp. employed more than 7,000, and other major companies including Allied Chemical, Chrysler, General Motors, Chicago Pneumatic and Oneida had manufacturing plants and factories in central New York with employees numbering in the thousands.
But then — just as in so many other Rust Belt cities — the jobs started to disappear. First, smaller manufacturers in the inner-urban areas began closing. Then the big employers with newer, larger plants on the outskirts of the cities started to lay off workers. The rise of global competition in the 1970s struck a devastating blow. G.E. was down to 1,200 workers in Syracuse by 1977. Carrier had only 1,300 employees in 2003 and Oneida announced it would close its factory doors in 2004.
When the jobs dried up, depopulation followed. The geographer John H. Thompson predicted in 1966 that the Syracuse metropolitan area’s population would grow to 2 million by the millennium. Instead, it stopped growing after 1970. The population of the city of Syracuse itself dropped from 216,000 in 1960 to 146,000 in 2000. House prices stagnated or declined. The end of the Cold War led to the closure of Griffiss Air Force Base in 1995. Boarded-up homes and disused warehouses became a common sight.
All the while, the politics of the region remained Republican — but moderate to liberal Republican, in the style of former New York governor and vice president Nelson Rockefeller. Major political figures of the last three decades in central New York — Sherwood Boehlert, Richard L. Hanna, John McHugh, James T. Walsh and, more recently, John Katko (one of the nine members of Congress in Donald Trump’s party to vote for his impeachment in 2021) — all embodied these politics.
Yet in recent years, deindustrialization and depopulation have made a new sort of Republican attractive in the region: one promising to reinvigorate business and enterprise — or, more recently, to “Make America Great Again.” Over the past few decades, the party has developed a seemingly unshakable grip on White working-class voters in the Rust Belt.
And these Republicans are far to the right of their predecessors. Tenney is a firebrand who was elected in 2016 on Trump’s coattails, but then lost in 2018 before her exceedingly narrow victory in 2020. Rep. Elise Stefanik has won four consecutive victories in the neighboring 21st District, the biggest by area in the state, but while she began her career as one of the most moderate House Republicans, she has become a major Trump supporter since his first impeachment trial and ascended to national fame, while only winning by a bigger margin back home in 2020.
The real test in the years ahead will be to see whether the Republican Party, if it continues its current drift to the right, will carry central New York with it. GOP voters in the region have always preferred moderates who represent continuity with pre-1960s Republican priorities over conservatives on the modern right wing of the party.
This region will remain a political battleground of national significance in 2022. Democrats and Republicans are currently backing opposing plans for redistricting following the 2020 Census results, with Democrats — who control the state legislature and the governorship — hoping to make major gains in New York. Control of the House could depend on where those lines are drawn. But perhaps even more significantly, a brand of Republican politics that predates the culture wars of the last half-century will either prove its continued resilience in central New York or fade away in the years ahead. If it loses ground here, can it survive anywhere?