Democrats are growing anxious that Republicans could upset 20 years of precedent in New York and see a GOP candidate elected to the governor’s mansion.
While New York’s gubernatorial seat was presumed to be safe for Democrats in the deep-blue state, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) double-digit lead over Republican contender Lee Zeldin had fallen to single digits in recent weeks as the Republican hammers her over hot-button issues like crime and inflation. The development prompted Hochul to describe herself last week as the “underdog” in the race.
In a nod to the increasingly competitive nature of the race, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) took the unusual step to create a super PAC to give the governor a last-minute boost. And while Democrats believe Hochul will likely prevail in the election next week, they concede it could be by a closer-than-expect margin.
“I’m worried, I think every Democrat should be worried,” said Rich Azzopardi, founder and principal of Bulldog Strategies, about the state of the gubernatorial race.
“People think crime is out of control … Most Democrats have combatted that with stats showing that in fact that is not, but if people don’t feel physically safe or economically secure you can’t show them stats to talk their way out of it,” Azzopardi, who still serves as a spokesman for former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), added separately.
Hochul became governor after Cuomo resigned last year following a bombshell report detailing sexual harassment allegations from multiple women. She won her June primary against New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-N.Y.) with two-thirds of the vote.
Zeldin, a congressman who represents the 1st Congressional District and has served in the House since 2015, also won his GOP primary by double digits.
Post-primary, the gubernatorial race mirrored that of many races across the country, including ones featuring more Trump-aligned Republicans: Hochul leaned into issues like abortion and targeted Zeldin for being among close to 150 Republicans who voted to overturn the 2020 election results. Meanwhile, Zeldin dug in his heels on issues like crime.
Democrats say Hochul has been the victim of multiple challenges: the fact that she’s running for her first full-term for governor; the national headwinds favorable to Republicans this year; and the possibility of Democratic voter fatigue in the state after weighing in on two different primaries earlier this year.
In a state that’s proved elusive for Republican gubernatorial prospects, members of the party feel this year could be different. Govs. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.), both of whom are thought to be weighing possible 2024 bids, have campaigned for Zeldin in recent days. One Republican strategist believed Zeldin had “run one of the best statewide Republican campaigns in decades.”
The race has even encouraged the Republican Governors Association (RGA) to spend close to $2 million to two different groups supporting Zeldin. It’s a difference from 2014 when then-RGA chair Chris Christie notably said about the New York governor’s race that year that “we don’t invest in lost causes.”
“The numbers are such where as long as Democrats go out and vote, they’re going to win the election. But they have to actually go and do that,” said Democratic strategist Chris Coffey. “And that has been the challenge for the Hochul campaign, has been motivating people and reminding them that they could actually lose, and that they need people to turn out and vote.”
Republicans, including Zeldin, have seized on the issue of crime, including on related issues like bail reform. Zeldin’s campaign has drawn attention to incidents on the subway and spoke about a shooting that took place in front of his home while his daughters where inside in political advertising.
“If you look at this … ‘93 [Rudy] Giuliani gets elected Mayor of New York [City]. Why? Crime. Following year [George] Pataki runs on reinstating the death penalty. There were other issues, obviously [Mario] Cuomo had already been governor for 12 years. People get a little tired of anybody who’s governor that long, but crime certainly was a factor in him getting elected,” said Thomas Doherty, who served as an aide to former Gov. George Patacki (R).
“If you look at like the Dem primary, Eric Adams …when he won the Democratic primary, he was sort of seen as the Democrat who was a former police officer.”
Polling, too, shows the issue of crime being a prevalent one for voters. A Quinnipiac University poll released last month showed likely voters ranking crime as their top urgent issue at 28 percent, while an Emerson College Polling-Pix11-The Hill New York poll released on Tuesday ranked crime third at 13 percent among respondents.
That poll, however, found Hochul’s lead widening over Zeldin at 52 and 44 percent among likely voters, compared to polling published last week that showed Hochul leading Zeldin 50 percent to 44 percent.
“The story of the 2022 election could be that Democrats overestimated how much voters cared about the events of Jan. 6 and the ties to Donald Trump of Republicans like Mr. Zeldin. In fact, by constructing a campaign around those concerns — and not the threats posed by crime, inflation and immigration — Ms. Hochul and other Democrats nationwide are at real risk of not facing up to the mood of the electorate at a time of pressure and fear,” wrote pollster Mark Penn in a guest essay for The New York Times published on Monday.
Hochul has argued that critics are not accurately capturing gun violence statistics in New York compared to other states. But some Democrats are concerned that data and stats alone will not change the tune of voters.
David Turner, a spokesman for the DGA, said “it’s simply not correct” to assert that she hadn’t been taking crime seriously and said she has been addressing the issue since earlier this year.
Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political strategist based in New York, raised some concerns with recent polling, suggesting that some were using “likely voter” models that didn’t accurately reflect the New Yorkers who will ultimately head to the polls.
Still, he didn’t dispute the fact the race was tightening.
“Whenever you have a rise in crime and rise in inflation — it goes back to 1966, 1980 — whenever you have those things together, that’s usually a good year for a Republican,” Gyory said.
Hochul’s campaign and Democrats are also betting that hammering on the issue of abortion, tying Zeldin to Trump and touting her record on issues like gun safety will resonate with voters. During her first and only debate against Zeldin last month, Hochul talked about the state’s collaboration with nine other states focused on illegal firearms and hitting the congressman on his voting record.
“Across the five boroughs, Governor Hochul has built a broad coalition of supporters because of her effective leadership and ability to get things done,” Jen Goodman, a Hochul spokeswoman said in a statement. “Democrats across the city are fired up, and from now until Election Day the campaign will continue to keep our foot on the gas reaching out to voters in every community and exposing Lee Zeldin’s dangerous extremism.”