Where Democrats Lost
The fast-rising Asian vote slips away
What a fascinating night it was. The national picture lacks a little clarity because there are still many races outstanding, but it’s obvious now no red wave materialized. Democrats under these circumstances—the midterm backlash, the unpopular president, persistently high inflation—performed quite well, flipping Pennsylvania, holding onto governor’s mansions in the Midwest, and even knocking out a few House Republicans. It’s plausible, at this point, Democrats will keep the Senate, something I did not think would happen on Tuesday morning. Mark Kelly holds a lead in Arizona and Raphael Warnock can defeat Herschel Walker in a runoff. In Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto is behind, but she’s not dead yet as votes are waiting to be counted in Democratic areas.
As of now, you likely know there was at least one state where the backlash to Democrats did arrive—New York. For The Atlantic and New York Magazine, I unpacked some of the reasons why, and I encourage you to read those pieces. I also, for Crain’s, took a stab at what could be on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s agenda next year. Hochul beat Lee Zeldin, a Republican congressman and Donald Trump supporter, by just six points, which was a smaller margin of victory than Gretchen Whitmer’s in Michigan. It was the closest governor’s race in 28 years. Had Zeldin retained his furious law-and-order message but somehow been able to disassociate himself from Trump—given that he voted to overturn the 2020 election, this was impossible—he might have outright won. All the energy, in the final days of the campaign, was with him, and Hochul’s effort was lackluster for long stretches of the race. In the end, as I expected, she pulled enough votes out of New York City to win. She leaned hard into the dramatic Democratic enrollment advantage.
There is much talk, as there should be, of how Republicans will likely secure their House majority through victories in New York. Since Zeldin crushed Hochul on Long Island, Republicans swept all four House seats there. They drove out Sean Patrick Maloney in Westchester and flipped Antonio Delgado’s old seat in the Hudson Valley. They chipped away at the Assembly’s Democratic majority, though it appears it will remain veto-proof. The Long Island washout hurt State Senate Democrats, but redistricting had been kinder to them, and they were able to net seats elsewhere. On the state level, at least, Democrats will be in full control, with progressives and socialists able to advocate for tangible change in Albany.
Had Zeldin performed a little better in New York City, he would have been elected governor. Manhattan was a blue wall against him. Even the Upper East Siders stuck with Hochul. There was only one precinct in the entire borough that voted for Zeldin, and it was in Chinatown. In Brooklyn and Queens, Zeldin found his staunchest support from two communities, one which is mostly lost to Democrats (the Orthodox Jews) and another that Democrats desperately need back if they are going to avoid a shock loss in the coming years. The Asian American neighborhoods of New York City are now, officially, Republican strongholds. They are not all electing Republicans to the city and state legislatures, but some are beginning to, or will very soon. Zeldin dominated the heavily Chinese 47th and 49th Assembly Districts of Brooklyn and won a strong victory in the new 17th State Senate district, which was created in the redistricting process to elect an Asian legislator from Brooklyn. In the 49th, an Asian American Republican unseated a white Democratic assemblyman who was first elected in 1986. All of these districts take in, to varying degrees, the neighborhoods of Sunset Park, Dyker Heights, and Bensonhurst, all home to enormous Chinese immigrant populations. Zeldin outright won the 40th Assembly District based in Flushing, where Chinese and Korean immigrants have long made their home. He appeared, in every instance, to improve on the margins secured by the Republican mayoral candidate who ran a year ago, Curtis Sliwa.
Last year, I wrote about the implications of this Asian swing to the Republican Party, and the story has not changed since then. It’s a national story with a New York twist. Zeldin, like Republicans elsewhere, campaigned heavily on public safety. In the last weeks of the race, he organized press conferences around whatever stabbing or murder had occurred, denouncing Hochul for allegedly being soft on criminals. He blamed, disingenuously, the partial end of cash bail in New York on every crime imaginable. But Zeldin was correct, at least, to speak to anxieties around crime rates, even if he did it in an incendiary manner. Hochul had no compelling rejoinder, no narrative to assuage the populace. Shootings and murders have fallen, but other kinds of crime are elevated. There are too many mentally ill people wandering the streets, without access to adequate housing, services, or medication. For the many Asians who have been victims of blatant hate crimes, only Zeldin seemed to offer answers. They were simplistic, but they were there. The defund the police movement is certainly dead, with most Democrats distancing themselves from the heightened rhetoric of 2020. Its impact, however, has seemed to linger in Asian neighborhoods, where Democrats are looked on with suspicion, too anti-police to be trusted.
The second issue Democrats have lost Asian voters on, it seems, is education. There are the national fights over admission to elite schools and whether the Ivy League maintains policies that discriminate against high-achieving Asian applicants. In New York, there was the high-pitched struggle around the standardized tests for the select number of specialized high schools. Former Mayor Bill de Blasio, with the initial support from Eric Adams, then the Brooklyn borough president, announced a plan to scrap the tests entirely. The idea was to remove a single, high-stakes test for the city’s top schools and create more diversity, since a low percentage of the schools were Black and Latino. The white population was adequately represented, relative to the city population. It was Asians—and Asians alone—who were over-represented, with as much as 70 percent of schools like Stuyvesant made up of Asian American students, many of them the children of working-class immigrants. In outer borough Asian neighborhoods, it is not uncommon for students to study for many years in anticipation of the specialized exam, known as SHSAT. Families with little money will throw their resources into tutoring centers and practice exams. Specialized schools, for Asian students who can’t otherwise afford the city’s private high schools, are regarded as genuine shots at the American dream.
Do they really offer that? I had friends who thrived at Brooklyn Tech, Stuyvesant, and the Bronx High School of Science. I know people who did well at the lesser-known schools that also require entry exams. I also know those who were burned out by the schools entirely, who regarded them as oppressive pressure cookers. One exam, in an ideal world, would not be the sole metric of entrance into a school. Neighborhood high schools would be desirable enough so families didn’t feel the need to scrap and claw to a few far-flung destinations. My parents’ generation didn’t think twice about where they were going to high school. They simply went where they lived. Socioeconomics, home life, and natural abilities determine far more how successful a child will be than any heralded high school. More parents should understand the academic research already out there.
But it’s inarguable that Asian families felt they were under attack in New York. Eric Adams and state lawmakers are not scrapping SHSAT. Nothing will change. The scars of those battles, however, linger. Press coverage, in prestige outlets especially, portrayed Asian success as a problem that New York City had to solve. Why would, after the SHSAT wars of 2018 and 2019, the average Chinese or Korean voter bother with the Democratic Party? What have Democrats offered them? For decades, their vote was taken for granted, and they were an assumed junior member of the multiracial coalition that would secure the eternal Democratic majority. No longer. So disgusted are Asian voters with the Democrats that the Asian American Democrat in the 17th Senate District, spanning heavily Chinese Sunset Park and Bensonhurst, was only leading her white Republican rival by 215 votes on election night. Iwen Chu, a longtime staffer and activist in the community, may barely carry the district against a fringe Republican named Vito LaBella. The local Democratic Party machines are functionally useless; they mounted no effort in the Asian community, or really anywhere. (Exceptions remain for certain local political clubs in Brooklyn that still try to whip votes.) Absent a strong, sustained organizing push from Democrats, Asians will continue to drift into the Republican fold. For now, city Democrats can win without them, banking support from liberal whites, Blacks, and Latinos, though Spanish-speaking voters are also increasingly drawn to the GOP. Here is the challenge for the vote-blue crowd: Asians are, by far, the fastest growing demographic group in New York City. Most other cohorts have plateaued or shrunk. What does the Asian vote look like in 2027? 2032? The Republican wave, this time around, could only crest so high. In the future, it may wash far deeper into the five boroughs.
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