Most people view politics as a simple business. There are winners and losers. But there are other factors that can determine who emerges as a victor or suffers defeat, and the public hears little if anything about them. I refer specifically to the terms “coattails” and “down ballot.”
The best example of the first phenomenon I can think of was last year’s race for governor of New York. The contest featured Democrat Kathy Hochul, who was well known for her activities as lieutenant governor under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She had ascended to the governor’s office when Cuomo resigned. Her opponent was then U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, a military veteran who had also been a state senator. Thanks to a number of hot issues, such as bail reform, Zeldin came much closer to beating Hochul than anyone expected, with the highest percentage of the vote for a Republican gubernatorial nominee in 20 years.
After a brutal campaign, Hochul won by a margin of 5 percentage margins. Generally, Republicans running statewide usually have little or no chance to win, but Zeldin mounted a spirited campaign, using crime as his major issue, and he spent an enormous amount of time in four of New York City’s traditionally Democratic boroughs. His aggressive campaign turned out to be a big bonus for other New York Republicans.
Thanks to what we call the coattail effect, Zeldin helped no fewer than five Republican candidates for Congress win in what were traditional Democratic districts. Thanks to Zeldin’s efforts, those five winners helped the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives. In addition to the impact on congressional races, Republicans also won a number of Democratic Assembly seats in Brooklyn and Queens.
If you research state and federal campaigns, you’ll find very few examples of candidates at the top of the ticket sweeping other candidates into office. The first race that I can recall where there was a massive shift in power thanks to the top candidate was President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign in 1964.
Jerry Kremer was a state Assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.