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New York moderate Republicans could struggle if the GOP takes up the far-right agenda

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Republicans will have a razor-thin majority in the House next month, and that is thanks in part to voters in New York. One of the bluest states in the country has a big incoming class of Republicans. NPR's Brian Mann explains how that could change the GOP's agenda.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: As election week unfolded around the country, a lot of hard-fought races tipped toward Democrats. Here in New York, it was a different story.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Long Island will be represented by four House Republicans even though more voters are registered Democrats.

MANN: The GOP won roughly a third of their national pickups here in New York. What went wrong for Democrats? Just about everything. Critics say Governor Kathy Hochul, who won her race by a narrow margin, ran a lackluster campaign, burdened by voter fatigue and scandals involving her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo. Hochul stressed abortion, but that issue was eclipsed here by a message pounded on by Republicans.

JEFREY POLLOCK: The crime narrative was very effective.

MANN: That's Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic operative who worked on campaigns across New York. Violent crime is still near historic lows here, but Pollock says the Democratic Party failed to come up with a clear, unified message on public safety.

POLLOCK: It did not do enough to sort of push back those fears that many of those Republican voters had.

MANN: Democrats also pushed a heavily gerrymandered redistricting plan for House seats, which was overturned by the courts, leaving many of their candidates vulnerable. Republicans capitalized on all these advantages by fielding a slate of moderates like Anthony D'Esposito.

ANTHONY D'ESPOSITO: People of all parties trusted me. People of all parties saw my work ethic.

MANN: D'Esposito is a former cop who won one of those House seats on Long Island. He says he and other Republicans downplayed far-right rhetoric that doesn't play well in these centrist, suburban districts.

D'ESPOSITO: The only way that you can govern and really connect with the majority of the residents that you serve in order to get reelected is to be moderate and not be too far to the right or too far to the left.

MANN: Mike Lawler, a Republican who represents a blue-tinged House district in the Hudson Valley, sent a similar message after his win, saying he'll work with Democrats, even those loathed by many in his party, like New York's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

MIKE LAWLER: I'm just going to be myself and go talk to every single member of Congress, from AOC all the way to, you know, obviously, Leader McCarthy.

MANN: Even with everything going right, a lot of the GOP's House wins here were razor thin. So holding these seats in 2024 won't be easy.

LAWRENCE LEVY: It's going to be a tightrope for all of them.

MANN: Lawrence Levy heads the Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. He thinks these new Republicans will be vulnerable in 2024, especially if the GOP focuses on issues favored by the party's MAGA wing, things like investigations into the Biden administration and his family.

LEVY: 2024, many more Democrats will be showing up at the polls just because they do in presidential years. And if Donald Trump is on the ballot, as unpopular as he is likely to still be in New York, he'll be a magnet for even more Democratic turnout.

MANN: Anthony D'Esposito, the new Republican from Long Island, says he hopes Republican leaders take the House in a different direction, solving problems rather than tossing red meat to GOP voters.

D'ESPOSITO: You know, I'm not saying that I don't support my party in other areas that they're going to be concerned with. But for me, our focus is on exactly what we campaigned on - making America safer, making America more affordable.

MANN: So Republican leaders now have to find some kind of balance between these new moderates from New York who helped give them their majority and far-right House members eager for a fight.

Brian Mann, NPR News, in upstate New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann