Nyack, New York
Earlier this year, when New York’s house district lines were drawn after months of wrangling and legal battles, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney made his move.
The Democrat announced she would run in the lower Hudson Valley’s 17th Congressional District, her seat in Cold Spring, but where only about 30 percent of today’s voters live. The decision was slammed by some on the left, who said that by running for a seat seen as safe for Democrats, Maloney was putting his fortunes ahead of the majority he was supposed to protect as chairman of the party’s House campaign arm.
Maloney dismissed the criticism, insisting that even in the new district, which President Joe Biden would win by about 10 points in 2020, he would see a large increase in November.
If anyone doubted it then, they have been silent in recent months with Maloney now locked in a tight race.
His challenges mirror those facing so many other Democrats in New York and across the country. Republicans have weighed in on concerns about rising inflation and public safety, their message driven by Biden’s low approval ratings and widespread frustration and anxiety over a pandemic that continues to wreak havoc on the economy more than two years after it began. If Maloney falls, Republicans will not only be proud of removing the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in their own backyard, but they will almost certainly be on their way to dismantling the Democratic House majority on election day.
Maloney’s GOP challenger, state Assemblyman Mike Lawler, has benefited from outside spending by Republican groups, with the Congressional Leadership Fund, the main House GOP super PAC, pouring $6 million into the race, $4 million of that. last few weeks Their spending prompted a response from the DCCC — which raised more than $600,000, Maloney said he recused himself from — and a separate group aligned with Maloney.
While the seat can be attractive to Republicans in any election cycle, the prospect of unseating Maloney has attracted an extra layer of interest and investment in Lawler’s campaign.
“Having run against the DCCC chair has helped him gather resources. Because it’s definitely a hot race, just because he’s up against the DCCC Chair,” said Yorktown Supervisor Matthew Slater, a Republican, a longtime friend and close ally of Lawler. “If Mike defeats the chairman of the DCCC, I think that has a big impact across the country. And I think that’s what the end result will be.”
Rockland County Democratic Party Chairman John Gromada told CNN that Maloney’s title and the symbolism that comes with it have been a “big obstacle” in the race.
“The only reason this race is close is because of the $9 million or whatever they put in all this negative advertising. It’s just crazy. It’s artillery,” Gromada said. “I don’t think it would be close at all if it wasn’t for that huge amount of money.”
For his part, Maloney is careful not to come across as whiny or whiny. This is, after all, the race he was looking for, even if it meant leaving fellow Democrat Rep. Mondaire Jones, whose district includes Rockland County, off the map. (Jones later ran for a redrawn New York district, but lost in the primary.)
“Embrace the sip,” Maloney said, drawing on old military slang to describe his and his Democratic colleagues’ plight. “Life is not fair. Politics is not fair. You get a helping hand and you get something out of it. And that’s what we’ll do.”
Maloney’s decision to redistrict also meant he had to win over voters in Rockland County, an ethnically diverse area with an influential Orthodox Jewish community often at odds with the state’s Democratic leadership.
“We’ve tried to get (Maloney) more into the concerns of the region, and a lot of them are in line with what he’s addressed in other places,” Gromada said. “For the campaign, I think it’s been a learning curve. But they have made a great effort to reach all parts of our region.”
Maloney, New York’s first openly gay congressman, faces the same attacks aimed at Democrats in battleground states across the country. Lawler, a former political consultant who holds a seat in the Rockland County state Assembly, is consistently delivering the message — and his argument is clear.
“You look at this election, and the issues people focus on the most are the economy and crime. And on both sides, it’s owned by Democrats,” he told CNN at a Pearl River restaurant. “For the first time in our nation’s history, (Democrats) own everything in Washington, Albany and New York City at the same time.”
Asked who he would consider his role model if elected, Lawler pointed to former Republican Rep. Peter King, an often combative congressman from Long Island who was considered a staunch advocate in New York. He championed legislation to benefit 9/11 sick first responders and to seek aid after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, at times defying Republican leadership.
“King really became like the third U.S. senator from New York because of his profile, his seriousness in tackling issues,” Lawler said. “My goal is not to get in people’s eyes, but to make sure that my constituents and the people who elected me are represented. This is a district that has 70,000 more Democrats than Republicans.”
Maloney and his allies have painted a starkly different portrait of Lawler, who they sometimes call “MAGA Mike,” arguing that his middle-of-the-road rhetoric and commitments to working across the aisle, if not absurd, will wear him off. The House conference was led by allies of former President Donald Trump, such as Kevin McCarthy, a potential future House speaker, and the increasingly influential Representative Elise Stefanik of New York. (Lawler does not dispute Biden’s 2020 election victory and said he would vote to ensure the results in Congress.)
His message on crime has shocked many Democrats, especially in the New York City suburbs, home to some of the nation’s statistically safest communities, which Lawler and other Republicans say they fear.
“When you look at this election, what you’re talking about is a contest between two styles of politics,” Maloney said. “One that values people having common sense and solving problems, as opposed to a style that just says, ‘You know, let me piss you off. Let me play on your worst fears and your darkest thoughts.'”
Lawler’s anti-abortion stance – which allows exceptions for rape, incest and threats to the mother’s life – has been another target for Democrats. Lawler has sought to quell this criticism by insisting that it is his personal position and that he will not vote for any federal restrictions, calling it a matter to be decided at the state level.
As for voters who consider abortion rights a top concern, Lawler reasons, they probably haven’t considered voting for him, a finding that he said casts doubt on Democrats’ broader strategy, here and in other swing districts.
“Their campaign has been about Donald Trump and abortion. And there are no voters, even in New York,” said Lawler. “People are focused on the cost of living, public safety, children’s education.”
Democrats, including Maloney, have also sought to link Lawler to an anti-Semitic video posted on the Rockland County Republican Party’s Facebook page in 2019. When Maloney was confronted about the clip of him attacking an Orthodox lawmaker during a debate, Lawler complained and called him out. the accusation that he participated in its production was a “personal and ridiculous attack”.
“I’ve never seen a guy stand there with such ease, smile on his face, and just lie,” Lawler said of Maloney. “You do that to me when you’re desperate, when you’re shaking. And of course, as we have seen, with the number of people who have finally come here to try to save him, he is in a state of panic.”
Former President Bill Clinton has been among those who have had kind words for Maloney, whose career in politics began during Clinton’s first presidential campaign. He eventually served as the former president’s White House staff secretary before beginning his political career.
Last weekend, here in Nyack, Clinton made a rare campaign appearance in Washington to praise Maloney and the Democrats.
“These people took office at a terrible time, and they’re improving. And we have to stand up for them,” Clinton said.
About an hour earlier, in an interview with CNN, Maloney offered a similar closing argument.
“My dad used to say, ‘Any ass can knock down a barn. It takes a carpenter to build one,'” he said, channeling a saying more often attributed to mid-century House Speaker Sam Rayburn. “We’re carpenters. That can be a tougher road.”