NEW YORK NOW – When voters in New York were asked two years ago what issues were at the top of their list while they prepared to head to the polls in November, they said health care, taxes, and the economy would decide their vote.
That was according to a poll from Quinnipiac University, which was asking New York voters to rank which issues were important to them in that year’s race for governor.
That wasn’t a surprise at the time; political analysts will tell you that, in any normal election year, access to health care and the cost of living in New York would be among the top issues for voters who determine the election.
But this year’s elections are expected to be anything but normal in New York, and leaders from the state’s two major parties have taken notice. While New York is typically a blue state from a national perspective, there are still a handful of competitive races at the state level.
After Republicans lost the majority in the state Senate two years ago for the first time in a decade, voters will decide this year if Democrats should retain control of the chamber, and consequently the entire state Legislature. The state Assembly is also led by Democrats.
And for several of the state’s most closely-watched races, the election has largely been focused on two major issues facing voters at the polls: criminal justice reform and the COVID-19 crisis.
“This is boiling down to a safety and security election,” said Nick Langworthy, chairman of the Republican party in New York.
“The leadership of the Democratic party that runs the Senate, that runs the Assembly, and certainly sits in the governor’s mansion — they slam through a new criminal justice system for the state of New York.”
Langworthy, like other Republicans, have latched onto a series of new criminal justice laws approved by Democrats last year to largely end cash bail for low-level and nonviolent offenses, and make information from prosecutors more readily available to defendants.
The new laws are more commonly referred to as ‘bail reform’ and ‘discovery reform.’ They’ve been the political target of Republicans since Democrats passed them last year.
Democrats approved a handful of changes to the new laws in April to address some of the concerns voiced by Republicans and members of law enforcement. The changes allowed bail to be set in more instances, and gave judges more discretion over defendants before trial.
That didn’t convince any of the state’s leading Republicans or law enforcement groups to support the bail reform laws. They’ve still been used this year as political fodder for Republicans, largely on Long Island and in close races north of New York City.
But Democrats are trying to persuade voters to side with them on the issue. Jay Jacobs, chair of the state Democratic party, said Republicans have dished out inaccurate information about bail reform and haven’t given the full context of why the changes were passed in the first place.
“I think most citizens, I don’t care whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, if you looked at it for really what it was and what it does, I think you’d agree with it,” Jacobs said. “It brings fairness to a system that needs it.”
When Democrats voted to largely end cash bail for lower-level and nonviolent charges last year, they’d been gearing up to reform the state’s criminal justice laws for years.
They’ve argued that allowing judges to set cash bail is inherently discriminatory because that kind of system allows people with money to be released before trial, while others have to sit in jail because they can’t pay their way out.
After the new bail reform laws took effect in January, some areas of the state started to report a rise in crime, particularly in New York City.
Law enforcement groups have blamed that trend on the new bail reform laws, though there’s been no definitive research or analysis into why areas of the state saw more crime this year over last. Some prosecutors have also attributed it to bail reform.
Democrats have dismissed the claim, but have acknowledged that the law isn’t perfect. And more than a year after the initial law was passed, it’s front and center in some of the state’s most competitive races.
It’s even seeped into the state’s races for Congress, which had nothing to do with the bail reform laws. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a conservative super PAC, is featuring the issue in an ad against Dana Balter, a Democrat running for Congress in Syracuse.
Balter, who’s challenging Rep. John Katko, R-NY, has not previously held office, and was not involved in the state Legislature’s negotiations around bail reform.
“That Dana Balter. Yeah, she should really get an award with the support she’s given to guys like me with bail reform,” says the ad’s narrator, who’s supposed to be a burglar.
Democrats are hoping voters aren’t swayed by the issue, and have instead hedged their bets on opposition to President Donald Trump.
Jacobs said they want voters to view Democrats as the path toward a calmer, more civil discourse in politics, and they’re hoping to offer former Vice President Joe Biden as a fix for the country’s division.
“I think the message really is that we need a change to go back to normalcy,” Jacobs said. “I think we’ve had enough in this country of all of the upheaval, the upset, the attacks on our institutions, the attacks on our democracy itself.”
As long as they can convince voters to side with Biden in competitive districts this year, Democrats think they’ll have a better chance at winning races down the ballot.
Part of that plan is tying their opponents to Trump. That’s another strategy being employed in the Syracuse race between Balter and Katko. House Majority PAC, which supports Democrats, has an ad highlighting the Trump connection.
“They call it all in — what John Katko is for Trump. Katko endorsed Trump for reelection,” the ad’s narrator says.
The next step of that strategy in some of the state’s most competitive races has been to criticize Trump and Republicans in Congress for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including stalled negotiations on additional legislation to stimulate and revitalize the economy.
That way, Democrats can make the case that they would’ve handled the COVID-19 crisis better, and would take action to tamp down the virus — and boost the economy — if elected in November.
“Frankly, the other side has been about, this thing will magically disappear by April. Well, April is long gone, and it has not magically disappeared,” Jacobs said. “What has disappeared are an awful lot of lives.”
New York has reported more than 25,000 deaths due to COVID-19, with around 800 reported each day at the peak of the crisis.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has blamed the situation on Trump, saying the federal government didn’t do enough early on to warn states of the virus and hasn’t organized a national response to reduce its prevalence.
At the height of the virus, New York competed with other states on the open market for medical supplies and equipment, while the federal government largely deferred those decisions to Cuomo and other governors.
Republicans have tried to flip that argument on its head. Langworthy said Trump has offered aid to New York when it’s asked, like through the establishment of temporary hospitals. Republicans have, instead, placed blame on Cuomo for the pandemic’s death toll.
New York has had the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the country, and also has one of the highest number of deaths per 100,000 residents, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Langworthy said that’s not an indication of success.
“I don’t believe that our governor or his administration should be spiking the football in any way, shape, or form because we still are the capital of COVID-19 deaths in New York,” Langworthy said, referring to the state’s high number of deaths compared to others.
Cuomo has defended the death toll, saying the virus particularly impacted New York because of travel from Europe in the early days of the crisis. The state didn’t know the extent that the virus was entering the state from abroad until it was too late, he’s said.
It’s unclear if either message is reaching undecided voters in an impactful way. But if the race in Syracuse between Katko and Balter is any indicator, the latest polling in the district shows both candidates neck and neck, and both are within the margin of error to win.
Dan Clark is the managing editor and host of New York NOW, which airs weekly on PBS.