Republicans Can Thank Suburban New Yorkers for House MajorityRoundup
tags: Republican Party, suburban history, Long Island
Stacie Taranto is an associate professor of history at Ramapo College of New Jersey and author of, Kitchen Table Politics: Conservative Women and Family Values in New York (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). She is co-editor of Suffrage at 100: Women in American Politics Since 1920. She is an associate editor of Made By History.
With Republicans poised to take control of the U.S. House in January by one of the slimmest margins in history, it is clear that the much-anticipated “red wave” never materialized in this month’s midterm elections.
Except in New York state, particularly in the suburbs of New York City — where Republicans flipped three House districts, including defeating Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. These victories, plus a fourth pickup in New York’s Hudson Valley north of the suburbs, provided Republicans with crucial momentum to assume narrow control of the House.
Some are puzzling over solidly blue New York providing Republicans with the margin they needed to retake the House. Yet, history reveals that since the 1970s, New York City’s suburbs — Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, and Westchester and Rockland counties to the north, which span six congressional districts — have been a crucial swing area that has at times been pivotal for catapulting conservative Republicans into power and serving as a bellwether for the state and nation.
Control of the House and the presidency has aligned in nearly every election cycle since 1980 with the voter tallies in these suburban counties. The 2022 midterm elections proved to be no exception.
Politically, New York has three regions: overwhelmingly blue New York City (save for Staten Island), which is politically balanced by Upstate — 53 predominantly conservative, mostly rural counties that span much of the state’s surface area. That leaves the decisive swing region: the “downstate suburbs,” including Long Island.
These suburbs took on increasing importance as their population exploded in the decades after World War II. As the economy boomed and the United States confronted a severe housing shortage, legislators responded with affordable Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgages tucked into the GI Bill and legislation such as the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act.
These federal policies, along with private investment, drove an unprecedented suburban boom. Mostly White Americans (due to FHA redlining and other discriminatory real estate practices) fled rental units in major cities to become first-generation middle-class suburban homeowners — and the parents of the postwar baby boom.
In New York, this pattern gave rise to the populous downstate suburbs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Nassau County grew by 93 percent from 1950 to 1960, with adjacent Suffolk County, also on Long Island, seeing a whopping 142 percent growth rate. The area was awash in new construction, famously including the potato fields that enterprising developer William J. Levitt converted into Levittown — an all-White planned community of nearly identical mass-produced tract homes. These suburbs all shared similar demographics: Rockland County, northwest of the city, reported a population in 1960 that was 95 percent White, with over 60 percent of adults married and roughly one child under the age of 5 for every other woman of childbearing age.
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