November 10, 2023 - 4:00pm

This week brought disappointing results for Republicans in elections in Kentucky and Virginia, but there were some green shoots for the party in New York City. For the first time in many years, a Republican was elected to a city council seat in the Bronx. In Queens, the incumbent Republican Vickie Paladino was overwhelmingly re-elected against a Democratic challenger whom she beat by only a few hundred votes in 2021.

New York reveals one possible model for Republicans in picking up electoral territory in other urban areas. Many major American cities have become dominated by an elite cultural-progressive synthesis on crime, immigration, and education. But the policy consequences of those positions are increasingly alienating voters.

Recent political campaigns in New York have focused on anxieties about crime rates and the growth of public disorder. As a consequence of “sanctuary city” measures and the Biden administration’s border policies, the pressures of unauthorised migration have pushed many cities to the breaking point. This has even prompted some Democratic policymakers in the Empire State to change tack. For instance, Governor Kathy Hochul has supported the proposal of Eric Adams, the Mayor of New York, to suspend the city’s “right to shelter” laws. The “equity” agenda for education has at times targeted academic tracking and selective public schools, prompting a backlash from parents.

Discontent with these issues could be a political opportunity for Republicans. In last year’s gubernatorial election, Republican Lee Zeldin overperformed against Hochul by emphasising crime. Many Asian American neighbourhoods in the Big Apple have drifted towards the Republicans in recent years. On Tuesday night, the GOP also did well in smaller cities in New York state. With candidates running on quality-of-life issues and economic revitalisation, the party flipped mayoral seats in Utica and Troy. In the Long Island suburbs of New York City, Republicans won many significant county races.

This dynamic could have implications for national politics, too. A recent Siena poll showed significant dissatisfaction with Joe Biden’s policies on immigration — even in New York City, where 57% disapproved. While it would be a mistake to read too much into a poll a year out from an election, it’s certainly not a good sign for Biden that his lead over Trump in New York City has dropped to 29 points (he won the city by 53 points in 2020).

While dissatisfaction with the urban status quo could provide an opening for Republicans, progressives could also leverage that unhappiness to push city politics even further to the Left. Philadelphia’s city council elections on Tuesday show how that could happen. There, a single political party can hold only five of the seven at-large city council seats. This has generally meant that Republicans hold two at-large seats on the city council, with Democrats holding the other five. 

However, the Working Families Party (which Bernie Sanders has called the party closest to his vision of “democratic socialism”) out-organised the GOP and snatched up both at-large seats. The Left-wing insurgents tied local Republican candidates to Donald Trump and the January 6 riot, which underlines how national political brands could impact the ability of Republicans to establish an urban beachhead.

But Republicans cannot rely on discontent alone to nudge cities toward the political Right. Restive voters might stay in a city and vote for the GOP, or they might choose to leave, either to go to the suburbs or a more well-run city. An exodus of unhappy voters might end up making some cities lean even more Left.

Some hope that by leaning in a more populist direction, the Republican Party can expand its appeal to working-class voters of a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The improved performance of GOP candidates in more diverse, urban districts may be a sign that this political gamble could pay off. But fleshing out a Republican urban coalition will take some more organisational muscle, not to mention innovation in policy.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.