Jerry Kremer

Two major worries for candidates, in three words


Most people view politics as a simple business. There are winners and losers. But there are other factors that can determine who emerges as a victor or suffers defeat, and the public hears little if anything about them. I refer specifically to the terms “coattails” and “down ballot.”
The best example of the first phenomenon I can think of was last year’s race for governor of New York. The contest featured Democrat Kathy Hochul, who was well known for her activities as lieutenant governor under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She had ascended to the governor’s office when Cuomo resigned. Her opponent was then U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, a military veteran who had also been a state senator. Thanks to a number of hot issues, such as bail reform, Zeldin came much closer to beating Hochul than anyone expected, with the highest percentage of the vote for a Republican gubernatorial nominee in 20 years.
After a brutal campaign, Hochul won by a margin of 5 percentage margins. Generally, Republicans running statewide usually have little or no chance to win, but Zeldin mounted a spirited campaign, using crime as his major issue, and he spent an enormous amount of time in four of New York City’s traditionally Democratic boroughs. His aggressive campaign turned out to be a big bonus for other New York Republicans.
Thanks to what we call the coattail effect, Zeldin helped no fewer than five Republican candidates for Congress win in what were traditional Democratic districts. Thanks to Zeldin’s efforts, those five winners helped the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives. In addition to the impact on congressional races, Republicans also won a number of Democratic Assembly seats in Brooklyn and Queens.
If you research state and federal campaigns, you’ll find very few examples of candidates at the top of the ticket sweeping other candidates into office. The first race that I can recall where there was a massive shift in power thanks to the top candidate was President Lyndon Johnson’s campaign in 1964.

Johnson was opposed by conservative Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Goldwater spoke for the extreme elements of the party, and as a result, Johnson was able to craft a campaign that helped elect hundreds of Democrats around the nation. Johnson’s effort was so strong that the Democrats were even able to unseat New York’s Assembly speaker, Joseph F. Carlino, with an unknown car dealer named Jerome McDougal.
Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were able to help a few members of their party limp to victory. But their triumphs had none of the magnitude of the Johnson landslide. Candidates for almost every office often hope that the nominee at the top of the ticket will somehow magically propel them into office.
Of course, in some cases, candidates at the bottom of the ballot have to worry that the party frontrunner doesn’t cost them their own elections. Being swept out of office by a weak designee at the top of the ticket isn’t a rare occurrence. In 1972, Democrats chose the ultra-liberal Sen. George McGovern as their presidential headliner. McGovern won only one state, and caused the party to lose numerous down-ballot races.
In 1988, the Democrats chose Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as their presidential candidate, and many candidates on the slate, including me, had to run strong individual campaigns to survive.
Both parties are already confronting the issue of whether their candidate for president will help or hurt them. Republicans are especially concerned about whether former President Donald Trump will head their ticket and cost them seats. And Democrats are worried about whether President Biden will have any impact on the party turnout.
As the 2024 races unfold, the high-profile candidates will be the subject of much of the discussion of winning and losing, but their parties will be just as concerned with coattails, and what the results will mean down ballot.

Jerry Kremer was a state Assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column?