The confetti fell, the music blared and Gov. Kathy Hochul got a rousing ovation as she finished up her nine-minute victory speech Tuesday night underneath a literal glass ceiling, a not-so-subtle nod to her historic victory as the first woman elected New York’s governor.

The mood at Capitale — the Manhattan event space where Hochul’s supporters watched the results trickle in — was unmistakably celebratory, with guests throwing back drinks from an open bar in between stops at one of two photobooths. It was the same party where U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and state Attorney General Letitia James also celebrated their victories.

But another feeling was palpable, too: Relief.

The way some political organizers see it, Hochul’s race never should have gotten as tight as it did. New York is home to twice as many Democrats as Republicans, and no member of the GOP has won statewide office since 2002, but Hochul’s margin of victory will end up in the single digits. Progressive leaders say it’s a sign that Democrats need to reshape their messaging and offer a more complete vision for the state.

“We can't just be running against Republicans as the boogeyman,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, state director for the New York Working Families Party, a progressive third party that backed Hochul. “Democrats have to put forward an affirmative vision and, especially in moments of heightened crisis, speak to where voters are. Speak to economic issues. Speak to an ability for people to make ends meet.”

When the Associated Press called the race early Wednesday morning, Hochul appeared to be on track for a 5-point victory over Republican challenger Lee Zeldin, a Long Island congressman who had not conceded as of 1 a.m.

Democrats have to put forward an affirmative vision and, especially the moments of heightened crisis, speak to where voters are. Speak to economic issues. Speak to an ability for people to make ends meet.
Sochie Nnaemeka, state director for the New York Working Families Party

A series of polls in recent weeks showed Zeldin rapidly closing the gap on Hochul, thanks in part to his relentless focus on crime — an issue that was top of mind for many voters this election cycle.

In the end, it wasn’t enough: Hochul rode a 70%-30% margin in New York City and a win in Erie County — her home county, and upstate New York's largest — to a single-digit victory statewide. And the Democratic Party appeared poised to hold off the kind of major Republican wave some had feared in New York and nationwide.

“Given the choice, New Yorkers refused to go backward on the long march toward progress,” Hochul said during her speech.

Hochul spent much of the early part of her general-election campaign highlighting Zeldin’s anti-abortion record and his support of former President Donald Trump, which included votes against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Zeldin, on the other hand, spent his 19-month campaign with a relentless focus on rising crime rates, vowing to repeal the state’s cashless bail laws and other criminal justice reforms.

When polls showed the race tightening in mid-October, Hochul quickly pivoted. Within days, Hochul would focus more heavily on public safety — airing a television ad highlighting her tough-on-guns policies and her successful push to tweak the state’s bail reforms, including making it easier to jail repeat arrestees.

For her part, Hochul denied such a pivot ever happened.

“I can’t choose what the media covers,” she said in late October, pointing to actions she had taken on crime ever since she took office in August 2021.

Shontell Smith, a former top aide to state Senate Democrats who is now a Democratic consultant, said the election shows Democrats have to figure out a more effective strategy when speaking on crime.

Hochul and other top New York Democrats have made the case that Republicans are trying to capitalize on fear, pointing to data showing crime is down compared to decades past. But Smith said Democrats have to acknowledge peoples’ perceptions about safety and how to respond to them.

“If people feel unsafe, I do think people should try to figure out a solution,” she said. “Yes, the statistics say that crime is not as bad as it was before, but there needs to be a recognition that people feel unsafe and try to figure out what to do with that.”

Yes, the statistics say that crime is not as bad as it was before, but there needs to be a recognition that people feel unsafe and try to figure out what to do with that.
Shontell Smith, Democratic consultant

During one of his final campaign stops in Manhattan on Monday, Zeldin pointed to public safety as the biggest single issue driving his campaign.

“Why did so many Democrats and independents vote for the Republican candidate for governor?” he said. “I would offer that a key part of our platform that voters have connected with is the desire to fight crime and make our streets and subway safer.”

Nnaemeka, meanwhile, said the election exposed issues with the Democrats’ on-the-ground infrastructure.

Hochul’s campaign spent much of the early part of the campaign funding a barrage of television advertisements that sought to define herself and her opponent — which, Nnaemeka noted, can be effective in reaching a certain part of the electorate.

But Nnaemeka said Democrats need to do more to focus on ways to expand their electorate.

“If we actually want to reach young people and people of color and immigrants and new voters, you have to really reach people where they're at,” she said. “And that infrastructure just did not exist.”

This story has been updated to clarify Sochie Nnaemeka’s quote.