New York State is now, almost counterintuitively, a crucial battleground for control of Congress. There are 18 congressional districts where Joe Biden won the popular vote that are currently represented by Republicans. A third of those are in New York. This even though the state’s 26 districts make up less than 6 percent of seats in Congress. If the Democrats want to win back Congress, the path lies more through New York than any other state. The fact that New York, despite its reputation as a liberal stronghold, has a disproportionate number of swing seats is due to the disarray and infighting of the New York State Democratic Party.
The Democrats think they have a solution to their New York problem: throwing more money at the swing districts. On Wednesday, The New York Times reported,
House Majority PAC, the main super PAC aligned with congressional Democrats, will unveil a first-of-its-kind, $45 million fund this week dedicated to winning back four seats Republicans flipped in New York, and targeting two other competitive districts. Republicans currently control the chamber by only a five-seat margin. The planned Democratic infusion would dwarf outside spending in the state in recent election cycles, and reflects just how central traditionally blue New York has become to the national House battlefield for both parties.
This remedy won’t solve the problem. The home of Wall Street, New York has never been a place where money is hard to find, and major party leaders like Senate majority Chuck Schumer, House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries, and state party chairman Jay Jacobs are adroit fundraisers.
Unfortunately, much of that money is used not to defeat Republicans but to fight off progressives who want to push the party to adopt populist economic policies like the Build Public Renewables Act (a local version of the Green New Deal) and a law banning arbitrary evictions. For example, Jacobs, himself a multimillionaire, has donated profusely to unseat progressive lawmakers in primary races.
In an in-depth and far-ranging analysis of the New York State Democratic Party published in The New York Times, Ross Barkan, a Nation contributing writer, highlights Jacobs’s hostility toward progressive Democrats. According to Barkan, “In an unusual move for a party leader, Jacobs last year backed the rivals of several incumbent Democrats.”
Last August, Jacobs donated $2,900—the maximum allowable amount—to a county legislator trying to unseat Jamaal Bowman, a progressive Westchester County representative, as the party nominee. Voters didn’t share Jacobs’s antipathy to Bowman, who won by a robust 38 points.
Jacobs told Barkan that his donations against progressive incumbents was motivated by
“the behavior of some of these folks that are speaking on behalf of what I’d refer to as the far left. They practice the politics of personal destruction. They won’t argue the merits of what I say, but they’ll condemn me—and others, by the way, not just me—in really vitriolic terms, personal and the rest. Some of the reasons why I personally gave to some of the primaries—it was just a handful of people—it’s because of what they said about me. Personally.”
While Jacobs might be acting out of spite, the big-money interests he’s aligned with are surely moved by self-interest. The disgraced former billionaire and crypto currency king Sam Bankman-Fried contributed more than $20 million to Democratic Party primary races through his Protect Our Future PAC. And on Thursday, court documents were unsealed alleging that Bankman-Fried and his associates funneled tens of millions of dollars into illegal campaign donations, including money that went to the New York State Democratic Party.
The New York Democratic candidates who benefited from Bankman-Fried’s largesse include Ritchie Torres, Laura Gillen, Max Rose, and Francis Conole. The case of Conole, the nominee for New York’s 22nd Congressional District, a swing seat that has repeatedly shifted between Republicans and Democrats over the past two decades, is especially instructive. He was an outside candidate who was elevated by Protect Our Future money. Thanks to crypto and Wall Street money, he massively outspent his primary rivals, who had much deeper political roots in the district, and won the nomination. But Conole’s lack of organic political support and lackluster campaigning cost the Democrats a winnable race
As Barkan’s extensive reporting documents, New York has a Potemkin Democratic Party, one where leaders like Jacobs rule like wealthy hobbyists motivated by personal self-regard with little thought to building an actual election-winning infrastructure or a viable coalition that unites centrists and leftists. One high-ranking New York Democratic official told Barkan, “When I go to DNC meetings, there is a sense that New York doesn’t have a state party at all.”
As Barkan notes, “Jacobs has an unrelated day job overseeing a string of popular and lucrative summer camps in upstate New York, in Pennsylvania and on Long Island, where he lives. Democratic business is often run out of a TLC Family of Camps office in Glen Cove, a small town on Nassau County’s Gold Coast. Politicos and journalists who want to reach Jacobs know to email his Camp TLC address.”
Comfortably ensconced in the woody comforts of his summer camps, Jacobs shows little concern for doing a proper autopsy on why his state party was the weakest link for the Democrats in 2022. Rather, Jacobs focuses on scapegoating leftists, saying they are “going too fast” and alienating moderate voters by pushing for criminal justice reform.
The problem with this excuse is that the Republicans ran on crime across the United States, notably in Pennsylvania in a brutal Senate race. And the Democrats outperformed expectations and historical patterns in most of the United States. New York was one of the few places, along with Florida, where a dysfunctional state party led to election setbacks. The chief difference between New York and states like Pennsylvania or Michigan is the leadership of the state party. Democrats do well when they have leaders focused on defeating Republicans rather than progressives.
The left-bashing of a Jay Jacobs is only likely to make New York’s problems worse. The inevitable result of focusing his ire on the left will be demobilizing progressive voters, especially younger ones.
The lesson of 2020 and 2022 is not that the New York State Democratic Party needs more money but that it needs new leaders, ones who are responsive to actual voters rather than to Wall Street and fake plutocrats running crypto currency schemes.