In Southern Brooklyn, a New York City Council seat that long favored Democrats flipped to Republican control. Two other Democratic seats nearby still hung in the balance on Wednesday morning, including a race where the incumbent, a likely candidate for Council speaker, was trailing.
On Long Island, Democrats faced staggering losses up and down the ballot.
And in Buffalo, a democratic socialist who had been hailed by left-wing leaders as a future face of the party appeared to be headed to defeat against the long-serving moderate Democratic mayor who ran as a write-in candidate with Republican backing, illustrating deep intraparty tensions over messaging and identity.
As national Democrats began to come to terms with losing the Virginia governor’s race and confronted a far closer race than expected for governor of New Jersey, New York Democrats of varying ideological stripes were dealt one stunning blow after the next on election night. While Eric Adams and fellow Democrats easily won races to retain control of City Hall and the City Council overall, Republicans made significant inroads across a state perceived by much of the country to be a liberal stronghold.
Statewide, voters appear to have soundly rejected a pair of constitutional amendments meant to broaden access to the ballot in future elections — a major national priority for the party — that Democrats had believed would sail to approval. Indeed, Democrats were left to grapple with how they had lost local seats that had been safely in their corner for years, with the potential for the greatest Republican presence on the New York City Council since Rudolph W. Giuliani was mayor.
And to national Democrats already worried about next year’s midterms, there were abundant warning signs in New York that the moderate suburbs that had increasingly shifted left in the Trump era were going to be far more difficult to maintain without a polarizing Republican president on the ballot.
“There’s no way to sugarcoat this: This was a shellacking on a thumping,” former Representative Steve Israel of New York, a former chair of the House Democratic campaign arm, said of Tuesday’s results for Democrats across the country.
Nowhere was that clearer than on Long Island, where Anne Donnelly, a Republican, defeated State Senator Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat, for district attorney in Nassau County, and Timothy Sini, the Democratic district attorney in Suffolk County, lost his seat to the Republican candidate, Ray Tierney. Laura Curran, the Nassau County executive seen as a strong incumbent, trailed her Republican opponent, Bruce Blakeman, on Wednesday.
“Long Island is very much like the rest of the country: There was a red wave,” said Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee who also leads the party in Nassau County. “Republicans were energized because they’re angry and they’re unhappy with the direction of the country. We saw that in polls. Democrats are disheartened and unenthusiastic.”
Mr. Israel, who used to represent a Long Island-area district in Congress, argued that the results there were perhaps more instructive than the higher-profile national races.
“On Long Island you had underfunded, unknown Republicans routing well-funded, well-known Democrats,” he said. “Anytime a generic candidate beats a more defined candidate from the other party, you know something’s happening.”
Certainly, New York remains an overwhelmingly Democratic state by many metrics.
The Republican Party has generally been hollowed out in New York City, where the Democratic candidate, Mr. Adams, was declared the winner of the mayoral election about 10 minutes after polls closed in what was by far the most consequential race on the ballot. Republican gains at the City Council level, although notable, were a matter of margins, and the vote totals could still shift somewhat as absentee ballots are counted.
And party strategists cautioned against reading too much into the results of off-year, low-turnout elections at a moment when many Americans are burned out from politics and distracted by the lingering pandemic and its attendant consequences. It is far too early to predict what next year’s environment or issue set will look like, they emphasized, or how involved former President Donald J. Trump will be in politics.
But local results across New York mirrored damaging outcomes for Democrats that unfolded in other races across the country on Tuesday — signs that even traditional blue bastions were not immune from a punishing national environment for the party.
For many watching the results, the moment was reminiscent of 2009, when Republicans won the governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey, swept a number of local races on Long Island and even on the New York City Council — and went on to take back the House of Representatives in a wave election the following year.
Asked if he was concerned about a repeat of that dynamic, Mr. Jacobs replied, “I’m very worried.”
Republicans emerged buoyant on Wednesday, promising to compound their gains this time next year when New York will elect a new governor, attorney general, State Assembly and State Senate, all of which are now within Democrats’ tight grip.
“The strength of our grass-roots support has never been stronger,” said Representative Elise Stefanik, who represents much of upstate New York and is the No. 3 Republican in the House of Representatives. “The work to save New York started tonight with Republican victories up and down the ballot, and it will continue in 2022 when we retire Nancy Pelosi and finally take back the Governor’s Mansion.”
The flash points varied from race to race, but one through line was the matter of public safety, as debates — and at times mischaracterizations — around recent changes to bail laws defined races on Long Island and confrontations over policing issues more broadly played out across the state.
Takeaways From the 2021 Elections
Democratic panic is rising. Less than a year after taking power in Washington, the party faces a grim immediate future as it struggles to energize voters and continues to lose messaging wars to Republicans.
“It’s probably better for Democrats that they got this wake-up call,” said Bruce N. Gyory, a veteran Democratic political strategist. He said that Democrats would have time to develop a stronger narrative to counter the Republican messaging before next year’s races for governor and the State Legislature, or risk losing independents and depressing turnout among moderates.
“You can bet they are going to run against every senator on Long Island and up the Hudson Valley on bail reform in the next election,” Mr. Gyory said.
In conservative corners of New York City, some voters were fueled by anger around municipal vaccine mandates as well, an issue that was at play in a number of City Council contests. As of Wednesday morning, Republicans had expanded their presence on the Council to four seats from three, but one other was clearly tilting their way and several other contests remained close.
Notably, Councilman Justin Brannan, who has been considered a front-runner for speaker of the next City Council, was still awaiting vote tallies in his too-close-to-call Brooklyn district, though he expressed optimism that absentee ballots would put him over the top.
Democrats were just as stung by the apparent defeat of three separate ballot initiatives they had crafted and expected voters across the state to easily approve. One would have paved the way for no-excuse absentee voting and another for same-day voter registration — policies adopted by other states that Democrats have argued are necessary to help counter Republican attempts to clamp down on ballot access.
Voters appeared on track to reject a third measure that would have tweaked the guidelines governing the once-in-a-decade legislative redistricting process to Democrats’ benefit. However, they did approve a fourth measure giving New Yorkers a constitutional right to clean air, water and a “healthful environment.”
The New York Republican Party had toured the state opposing the election-related measures, warning, speciously, that they could lead to an increase in voter fraud across the state. Democrats, meanwhile, made very little effort to sell the proposals. They appear to have been hurt by ballot design as well: in New York City, where the questions appeared on the back side of the ballot, thousands of voters simply left that portion blank.
Former Representative Peter King, a Republican who once represented a Long Island-area district, characterized the results overall as a “reaction against Biden and the progressive Democrats.”
There were real opportunities for Republicans to continue to make inroads, he predicted — but, he cautioned, that is not a guarantee if Republicans campaign in what he cast as an overly ideological manner.
“We have to show we can govern, show we can make it work, and not get caught up in issues that are the right-wing equivalent of the progressives,” he said. “It has to be coordinated, it has to be coherent, it can’t go off the edges.”
Luis Ferré-Sadurní contributed reporting.