New York governor’s race takes sudden turn after Zeldin surge

ALBANY, NY — Kathy Hochul’s reelection strategy is not working as planned.

After spending the summer pounding Republican opponent Lee Zeldin as an anti-abortion acolyte, Donald Trump acolyte, Hochul is finding out what other Democrats across the nation are also learning: Crime and the economy are crowding out abortion rights and the former president’s troubles as top of mind issues for voters.

The New York governor is responding with a last-minute shift in approach just weeks ahead of the election by promoting her efforts to create jobs and fight crime. “You deserve to feel safe,” Hochul says in a new TV ad released Saturday as part of a $1 million-plus buy in New York City. “And as your governor, I won’t stop working until you do.”

Similar themes have played out across the nation in recent weeks as Republicans in Senate races in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have found success with putting more emphasis on crime, as well as in Oregon’s open race for governor that has become surprisingly close.

Zeldin, a congressman from Long Island, holds almost daily press conferences outside subway stations in New York City to highlight violent crime and what he argues is Hochul’s failure to address it – aided by millions of dollars in ads from his campaign and a super PAC Drilling home that message.

New polls this week showed the race tightening — maybe to low single digits, uncomfortably close for Democrats after two decades of statewide dominance in New York.

A Siena College poll Tuesday showed Hochul with an 11-percentage-point lead over Zeldin, down from 17 points a month ago. Later in the day, a Quinnipiac University poll gave Hochul a 4-point lead, raising the prospect of a remarkable upset in the blue state.

The Quinnipiac poll ranked crime as the top issue among voters — above protecting democracy.

Hochul’s advisers say the governor’s closing message ahead of Nov. 8 will emphasize those additional themes and, in particular, specific actions she’s taken since assuming office last year.

“These are the things we’re going to have to talk to voters more about, that I think are important to voters,” State Democratic Committee Chair Jay Jacobs said in an interview, before going after Zeldin. “He can complain and bellyache. He does that very well. She produces. That’s what it’s all about.”

Until now, Hochul has focused largely on abortion rights and on Zeldin’s support of Trump, which included voting against certifying the 2020 election and recent revelations that he messaged former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on ways to discredit the results. But Zeldin, like other Republicans, has insisted general election voters are more worried about crime and affordability.

It was a tough-on-crime message that carried Republican Rudy Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor, to win the New York City mayor’s race in 1993 and, last year, propelled Democrat Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, to City Hall.

“No matter how many times she utters ‘Orange Man bad,’ it doesn’t matter when you don’t feel safe in your own neighborhood or public transit or you can’t afford to eat, work and play in New York,” New York City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Republican who is leading a pro-Zeldin PAC called Save Our State NY, said in an interview.

To be sure, Zeldin has downplayed Trump’s support – including the former president’s endorsement earlier this month. There was no press release from the Republican’s campaign or even a recognition on social media accounts. Zeldin later commented, “it shouldn’t have been news — he’s supported me before this weekend.”

And Hochul and Democrats are backing off their existing approach. Instead, they’re looking at a twin message through Election Day: hit Zeldin on his Trump loyalty and anti-abortion stance, but also pivot more toward his record on crime and the economy.

They said they still expect her to continue the 20-year streak of outmaneuvering Republicans seeking statewide office, while conceding it might be a single-digit victory in a tough year for Democrats.

“In September, there was more focus on the Democratic constellation” of abortion rights, gun safety and Trump, said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic strategist in New York who had advised several governors. “I would argue that in October, there has been more focus on crime, inflation and economic uncertainty.”

What happens to Hochul matters beyond Albany. She’s at the top of the ticket, so Democrats are counting on her to drive voters to the polls to boost critical down-ballot campaigns in New York, which has as many close House races as any state in the nation.

“It’s not just about the governor’s race. We have three of the highest profile, must-win House races in the country here in New York,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.). “To lift them to victory, strength at the top of the ticket is absolutely essential.”Hochul continues to hammer on Zeldin’s Trump ties in his native state where the former president lost by 23 percentage points in 2020. And she’s still talking about abortion access .

Her campaign released two new ads Tuesday highlighting “Zeldin’s MAGA agenda.”

“The stakes in this election couldn’t be higher,” Hochul says into the camera in one new ad. “Lee Zeldin says he wants abortion outlawed. He’d repeal New York’s common sense gun laws, and he even voted to overturn the 2020 election. That’s who he is, but it’s not who we are as New Yorkers.”

One new mailer from the State Democratic Committee shows six pictures of Trump and Zeldin together with the title: “Best Friends Forever.”

Zeldin’s assertion that voters are more interested in pocketbook issues and crime than the former president appears to be in line with what national polls show.

“New Yorkers want me focused on the issues that are related to them and their families,” Zeldin said last week outside a pizza shop in Albany where the owner was concerned about local crime. “They are thinking about their own breaking point in the state.”

Zeldin’s challenge is twofold: rev up the Republican base without alienating Trump supporters, win with independents — who in New York outnumber GOP voters — and pull a portion of frustrated Democrats to his side.

Hochul has stressed that abortion rights is still a critical issue for voters, and she has pressed that her administration has a “laser focus” on fighting crime — whether it’s toughening bail reform laws passed in 2019, tightening access to guns or confiscating 8,000 illegal firearms over the past year.

Speaking Wednesday to new State Police graduates in Albany, Hochul said shootings and homicides are down 14 percent in New York this year.

“We’ve had areas of great success,” she told the room full of new officers and their families.

Some Democratic consultants said Hochul, previously the lieutenant governor, needs to find a balance between hitting Zeldin and highlighting his own profile and record. She is still fairly new to many voters, having succeeded three-term Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he resigned in scandal in August 2021.

There will be plenty of money to spend on messaging in the coming weeks. Hochul had $10.9 million remaining in the bank as of last week, while Zeldin had $4.5 million and has been boosted by several PACs spending.

“Beyond the Democratic box-check stances, no one knows the real Kathy Hochul,” one downstate Democratic communications professional said on the condition of anonymity because they are involved in ongoing campaigns. “She’s got the lion share of dollars, but she lacks the lions’ roar. She’d benefit from, even in the homestretch, letting loose, axing the ‘safe’ stuff and being more herself and showcasing her agenda.”

For Zeldin to win, he would have to get at least 30 percent of the vote in New York City, a Democratic stronghold, and win the suburbs and upstate New York handily — a recipe that has eluded Republicans since George Pataki won a third term as governor in 2002.

The Quinnipiac poll, in particular, showed a glimmer of hope for Zeldin, with him down 59 percent to 37 percent in the city and with a slight lead in the city’s suburbs. He had 52 percent support upstate, compared to Hochul’s 44 percent.

Democrats criticized the poll, saying it undercounted the Democrats and women.

“I’m pretty confident that, while the race is tightening, it’s not as dire in terms of his closeness as two of the polls that came out, which I would say were poorly selected audiences,” Jacobs said.

Hochul told reporters that her message focusing on Zeldin’s record, fighting for abortion rights — as well as the economy and crime — is the right one, saying he voted against gun-control laws and federal measures to bolster the economy.

“I was on Long Island,” Hochul said Tuesday. “They’re not happy with the fact that he voted against legislation that allowed me to fix potholes, infrastructure money. He voted against infrastructure. He voted against the CHIPS bill. You know what that did? That allowed us to drive Micron to the state of New York. So when voters find this out, they’re shocked he’s even running.”

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