As chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, it’s Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney‘s (NY) job to maximize the number of his fellow House Democrats who win their elections in November.
But thanks to a Republican spending barrage, Maloney faces an increasingly difficult reelection battle of his own in a suburban seat that President Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points in 2020.
The Cook Political Report shifted its rating of Maloney’s race against Republican state Assembly member Mike Lawler from “lean Democrat” to “toss-up” on Monday. If Maloney loses, he would be the first party campaign chair to lose reelection since 1992, according to Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman.
“This race is and always has been competitive, just like the 5 others that Rep. Maloney has won,” Mia Ehrenberg, a Maloney campaign spokesperson, said in a statement responding to the rating change. “While MAGA Mike Lawler is alienating voters left and right with his anti-choice extremism and open use of racism and anti-Semitism, Rep. Maloney is campaigning on his strong record of results for the Hudson Valley.”
Maloney’s campaign enjoys a significant direct fundraising advantage over Lawler, having spent $2.2 million on advertising to Lawler’s $451,000. according to AdImpactwhich monitors campaign advertising.
But national Republican super PACs have spent lavishly to even the scales. The National Republican Congressional Committee, House Republicans’ campaign arm, has spent nearly $500,000 in support of Lawler’s bid.
And the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP super PAC that has dwarfed its Democratic counterpart in fundraising, has spent another $4.7 million.
But the DCCC announced Monday afternoon that its independent expenditure program would put $605,000 behind a TV spot attacking “MAGA Mike” Lawler as an opponent of abortion rights who cozies up to right-wing extremists. (Lawler has claimed that he would leave abortion policy up to the states and that he opposes federal legislation restricting abortion rights.)
“Republicans are pouring well over $6 million to prop up MAGA Mike Lawler whose campaign couldn’t compete on its own,” DCCC spokesperson Chris Taylor said in a statement. “Since day one, Chairman Maloney has been working tirelessly as a player coach — he’s built a campaign and we’ve built an operation at the DCCC that can support that reality.”
Maloney has recused himself from any DCCC decisions related to his race and the DCCC said its spending was due to the importance of his seat to preserve the Democrats’ fragile majority in the House. But Lawler’s campaign issued a press release blasting the spending as an instance of “self-dealing,” complete with a cartoon image of a bank robber.
“Sean Maloney’s selfishness knows no bounds,” Lawler campaign spokesperson Bill O’Reilly said in a statement. “Mr. Maloney is now robbing money from his fellow Democrats in a desperate attempt to save his own hide.”
The DCCC noted that it is spending more money in 41 other congressional seats than it is in New York’s 17th Congressional District where Maloney is running.
But House Republicans’ ability to even force Democrats to spend in New York’s 17th speaks to the size of their fundraising advantage, the momentum they enjoy in a year when they need to flip just five seats to retake the House, and the unique difficulties facing Democrats in New York where public discontent with an uptick in crime is fueling Republican candidates up and down the ballot.
Lawler has likely benefited from the spirited campaign of Rep. Lee Zeldin (R) against New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D). Zeldin has gained ground against Hochul by blaming her for failing to repeal a 2019 law restricting the use of cash bail on the grounds that it penalizes low-income defendants awaiting trial.
Lawler and his allies have likewise attacked Maloney for comments made during a 2018 run for New York attorney general in which Maloney expressed support for ending cash bail.
Asked at a candidate debate that year whether he believes in ending cash bail, Maloney responded, “Absolutely, and I’d make it a top priority.”
New York Democrats have already responded to the political backlash from the bail law by curtailing its reach. Lawmakers have approved two rounds of changes designed to give judges greater discretion to use cash bail. Maloney has supported both rounds of changes and defeated a progressive primary challenger in August by attacking her for supporting cuts in police funding.
Republicans have also blasted Maloney for attending several events in Europe in October to raise money for the DCCC from US citizens living abroad.
The attacks appear to have had an impact on Maloney’s standing. Lawler led Maloney by six percentage points in a September poll commissioned by the NRCC.
“The Cook ratings change should come as no surprise, nor Mr. Maloney championed cashless bail, raised taxes on the middle class, and got caught partying in Europe this month while his constituents struggle to pay for heat and groceries,” O’Reilly said in a statement.
Maloney’s misfortune began with a New York redistricting process that blew up in Democrats’ faces. In April, the state’s highest court conclusively rejected the Democrats’ original maps, which they had gerrymandered to the party’s advantage, on the grounds that they violated the state Constitution’s ban on partisan gerrymandering. The move forced a nonpartisan redrawing that delayed primary elections by two months and prompted an acrimonious game of musical chairs.
Maloney angered some colleagues with his decision to run in New York’s new 17th Congressional District, rather than his current seat in New York’s 18th. Maloney’s home was in the new 17th, but his move came as a surprise to Rep. Mondaire Jones, the 17th’s current representative.
Other Democrats noted that the 17th was slightly more Democratic than the 18th, which Biden carried by just eight percentage points. In keeping with his role as DCCC chair, these critics charge, Maloney should have run in the harder seat.
But Maloney, who currently represents only about one-quarter of the new 17th district, has noted that there are 16 House Democrats in seats that Biden carried by more in the DCCC’s “Frontline” program for vulnerable incumbents.
Referring to New York’s 17th and 18th, Maloney told HuffPost in August, “You would have had two ‘Frontline’ districts any way you slice it.” (New York’s 17th does not technically have “Frontline” status since the DCCC chair’s seat is not eligible for that designation.)