Last November, a national “red wave” never materialized in the midterms, but a smaller one did in the blue state of New York. That’s where Republicans flipped four House seats, allowing Kevin McCarthy to wrest control of the chamber’s gavel from Nancy Pelosi.
With a year and a half until the next election, both parties are eyeing the Empire State as the most important target in the fight for House control. Across the country, there are 18 congressional districts held by Republicans that President Joe Biden won in 2020. Six of them are in New York. It’s a scenario that is setting up New York to be one of the most significant—and likely one of the most expensive—swing states for down-ballot races nationwide.
“It is paramount that we hold those seats,” Rep. Elise Stefanik, the House GOP Conference Chair, tells TIME. This week, she launched a new initiative, the New York Battleground Fund, to protect the state’s Republican incumbents and target House races where she says Democrats are vulnerable. “We are really ground zero politically for maintaining and expanding the House,” adds Stefanik, who represents a largely rural upstate New York district.
Her involvement in the effort is significant. The third-ranking House Republican and zealous Donald Trump defender is one of her party’s most prolific fundraisers. She raised $3 million in the first quarter of 2023 and more than $22 million in the previous two election cycles, more than any conference chair in history.
While Stefanik has just started soliciting donations for the new fund, which will partner with the state party, she is going up against a formidable Democratic counter-effort. “Democrats’ path back to the House majority runs through New York more than any other state,” David Wasserman, a House elections analyst for the Cook Political Report, tells TIME.
That explains why the House Majority PAC, the Super PAC aligned with congressional Democrats, launched a $45 million program in February to win back the New York seats they lost in 2022. That money will go toward TV ads, digital ads, direct mail, research, and voter registration efforts, the group says. “We are working harder than ever to make sure that Hakeem Jeffries becomes the next Speaker of the House,” C.J. Warnke, the House Majority PAC’s communications director, tells TIME. “I think there’s a clear path in New York to make that happen.”
The funding will also support a New York-focused rapid response team with a “goal and intention to define the Republican freshman members before they can define themselves,” Warnke adds.
That might be the least challenging when it comes to Rep. George Santos, the freshman Republican who became a national punchline after reports revealed that he fabricated large swaths of his personal history. Santos has not yet said whether he will run in 2024 to represent his Democratic-leaning Long Island district for a second term.
Read more: Why George Santos May Not Get Much Done in Congress
“That is going to be a decision for the voters in that district to make,” Stefanik says of Santos, adding that the New York Battleground Fund doesn’t plan to get involved in Republican primaries. When asked if the fund would invest in Santos’ re-election were he were to win the nomination, she says, “In terms of any announcements for re-election, that hasn’t even happened yet. So that’s a question way ahead of time, but my focus is working with the New York GOP to target those seats in the general election.”
A Newsday/Sienna College poll from January found that 78% of Santos’ district wants him to resign, including 71% from his own party. Republican Kellen Curry, an Air Force veteran, announced this month he would run for the seat regardless of what Santos does.
Most of the House seats in play stem from a congressional map approved last May by the New York Supreme Court, after it ruled that New York’s Democratic leaders had violated the State Constitution by drawing maps in their favor. The court then appointed a special master to craft replacement lines that were widely regarded as a political disaster for the state’s Democrats.
But that fight is not over. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Attorney General Letitia James, both Democrats, filed litigation last week asking the courts to allow an independent commission to redraw the maps once again. “Democrats are trying to cheat,” Stefanik says. “They obviously gerrymandered their attempted maps and that obviously blew up in their faces.”
And then there will be the residual effects that a presidential race has elsewhere on the ballot.
If Trump ends up as the GOP nominee, Stefanik, who has endorsed the former president, is betting that he will galvanize conservative voters. She insists they are more motivated to back Trump after Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg indicted him last week. “People understand that this is a political persecution,” she says, echoing a common MAGA attack line. “It’s going to backfire on the Democrats.”
Democrats hope that Trump would turn off the moderate voters most needed to win in swing districts. Yet that may not be enough. “There are plenty of suburban voters and upstate voters who don’t like Donald Trump personally, but are open to voting for a down-ballot Republican,” Wasserman says.
For that reason, the House Majority PAC is planning to concentrate as much, if not more, on the New York Republican lawmakers as on any affiliation they may have with the former president. Along with Santos, Warnke identified Reps. Mike Lawler, Brandon Williams, Anthony D’Esposito and Marc Molinaro as top targets. “We’re really focusing on making sure that nothing these guys are doing goes unnoticed and that we are consistently sending out information about these freshmen Republicans,” Warnke says. “It makes us a consistent thorn in the side for them.”
Democrats will also have to defend one of their own: Rep. Pat Ryan, who represents a district just outside of New York City that both the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections list as leaning Democratic but which both parties expect to be an expensive contest. Stefanik plans to go after Ryan’s seat—which he won in 2022 by one percentage point—as the main potential pickup for Republicans next year. “That’s a huge opportunity for us,” she says.
It’s yet another sign of New York becoming an increasingly consequential political combat zone. That marks a noticeable shift for New York, which is usually not a battleground in presidential election years. A Republican nominee for president hasn’t carried the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. But next year, it’s where more dollars may be spent on down-ballot races during a presidential election cycle than ever before in state history, according to sources familiar with the matter.
“The money that’s being raised now is just a fraction of the overall money that will eventually be raised and spent to compete in these seats,” Wasserman says.