Lee Zeldin, a pro-life, pro-gun and ardently pro-Trump Republican, is within striking distance of becoming the next governor of the Democratic bastion of New York, thanks to a campaign that has worked relentlessly to channel voters’ anxiety about crime and lawlessness.
Several veteran New York political observers are still betting that incumbent Kathy Hochul will prevail in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two-to-one and where the great suspense surrounding recent elections has been the battle between the centre-left and the progressive left.
Still, Zeldin’s late charge has shocked observers and appears to buttress a growing belief about the dynamics of this midterm election cycle: that voter concerns about crime and an off-kilter economy, whipped up by Republicans, are supplanting Democrats’ focus on protecting abortion rights after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs Wade in June.
On Tuesday night, the candidates repeated those attack lines when they met for their first and only debate. During the frenetic, one-hour skirmish, Zeldin accused Hochul’s administration of doing shady business with donors and demanded to know why she had not fired Manhattan’s progressive district attorney, Alvin Bragg, a supporter of sentencing reforms.
“I am running to take back our streets and to support unapologetically our men and women in law enforcement,” Zeldin said. He also drew a sharp distinction between the two candidates’ views about the pandemic, saying: “Let me be clear to all the parents who are out there. I will not mandate Covid vaccines for your kids. Ever.”
Hochul countered that Zeldin could not be trusted to protect abortion rights and pressed him on his vote against certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. In a memorable moment, she asked the Long Island Congressman to answer a “yes or no” question: “Was Donald Trump a great president?”
Zeldin demurred, although he cited several policies from the Trump presidency that he supported.
The issue of crime and public safety appears to be reverberating well beyond New York. In Wisconsin, it has helped Republican Senator Ron Johnson regain ground against progressive Democrat Mandela Barnes. In Pennsylvania, Republican Mehmet Oz is following a similar playbook in a tight race with John Fetterman.
According to a recent Politico poll, more than three-quarters of voters said violent crime was a major problem in America — although they disagreed on the remedies.
“The issue is crime and the economy — not abortion. It always was,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime New York political strategist. While he did not dismiss the passions stirred by abortion, Sheinkopf argued that for most voters it trailed “fears about getting shot walking down the street or putting food on the table”.
Chapin Fay, who managed Zeldin’s 2014 congressional campaign and is now raising funds for him, agreed. “I think she’s learning what Democrats across the country are learning,” he said of Hochul. “The abortion issue is not working as well as they hoped.”
By contrast, Fay argued, the seemingly random nature of recent crimes in New York — with victims being shoved on to subway tracks by unknown assailants — and talk of a looming recession have created a climate of fear that is hurting incumbents. “I think people are really upset and scared,” he said.
Since George Pataki’s re-election in 2002, Republicans have lost every New York gubernatorial race by double digits. True to form, Zeldin, a lawyer and Iraq veteran from suburban Shirley, Long Island, trailed Hochul by wide margins throughout the summer and was generally being regarded as an afterthought.
But things began to shift earlier this month after two teenagers were wounded in an apparent drive-by shooting outside Zeldin’s home while his twin daughters were studying inside. The bleeding victims took cover under his porch.
The episode was a vivid display of the rampant crime he has talked about on the campaign trail. For suburban voters, it seemed to confirm the fear that violence in the city could spill into their neighbourhoods, too.
One former New York political operative observed that crime had not been an issue in the state since the early 1990s, and that, as a result, many otherwise liberal voters now had a low tolerance for it. “New Yorkers are not used to crime being an issue,” this person said. “But crime and public safety is the most potent issue when it goes south.”
A Quinnipiac University poll released a week ago showed Zeldin trailing Hochul 50 per cent to 46 per cent. An average of polls compiled by the FiveThirtyEight blog put the margin at 7 points.
After running a modest campaign, Hochul has shifted in recent days to remind voters of her law-and-order credentials, including an appearance this weekend with Eric Adams, the New York City mayor and former police captain.
While Hochul is an incumbent, she is not a particularly strong one. She was appointed governor last year only after Andrew Cuomo resigned under pressure, and remains unfamiliar to many voters.
The Buffalo native does not command the same loyalty among unions and New York City communities that allowed Cuomo to mobilise huge numbers of Democratic voters and offset potential weaknesses in other parts of the state.
For Zeldin to prevail, many of those Democratic voters will have to stay at home on November 8, and he will have to make inroads into the inhospitable political terrain of New York City.
“The environment is going to get him to within a couple [of] points,” Fay predicted, “and then it’s up to him and his campaign to put him over the top.”