The last time New York voters elected a Republican to a statewide office was 2002, when Governor George Pataki clinched his third term. At the time, Rudy Giuliani was still being called “America’s Mayor” and Manhattan was still recovering, a little more than a year after the 9/11 attacks.
Over the past 20 years, Democrats have successfully solidified their hold over the state government in Albany, ultimately gaining complete control over both houses of the legislature, the governor’s mansion, and all statewide elected offices.
The last serious political opposition to the Democrat liberals in Albany ended when the 2018 state senate election wiped out the Independent Democratic Caucus. Working together with senate Republicans, the Independent Caucus had been the last line of defense, blocking the most extreme liberal measures from passage. Since then, New York, like California, has been subject to one-party rule, and become a testing ground for the most radical hard-left policies and laws.
Thus, it came as rude surprise to state and national Democrat party leaders to discover a few weeks ago that New York Governor Kathy Hochul was facing a serious opponent, Long Island Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin. Her early 17-point lead in the polls was rapidly evaporating as Zeldin began to get his message across to voters concerned with rising crime and inflation. The three most recent polls showed Hochul clinging to a single digit lead of between four and eight points, and Zeldin holding a lead in the New York City suburbs and upstate. A poll released Tuesday by the Trafalgar Group based on polling October 27-31, shows Zeldin ahead at 48.4% and Hochul at 47.6%. The margin of error 2.9%.
Ironically, Hochul’s strongest base of voter support is in the liberal enclaves of New York City, an area where she was almost totally unknown before she was elevated from the relative obscurity of being a lieutenant governor by the forced resignation of Governor Andrew Cuomo last year.
HOCHUL’S UNINSPIRING RECORD
Hochul was picked by Cuomo to run as his lieutenant governor in 2014 largely because of her reputation for party loyalty, and her willingness to play a subservient role by giving her full support to Cuomo’s agenda.
Her previous record in public service was unimpressive. After serving for 13 years as a member of the town board of Hamburg, New York, on the outskirts of Buffalo, she became the clerk of Erie County. She then won a special election to an open seat in Congress in 2011 and served for 18 months before losing her reelection bid. Hochul then went to work as a lobbyist for a Buffalo regional bank until Cuomo, facing a significant primary challenge from the left, chose her as his lieutenant governor running mate to firm up his support among women. It was also clear that Hochul’s main qualification for the post was her willingness to toe the Democrat party line and not say or do anything without Cuomo’s approval.
As lieutenant governor, Hochul faithfully carried out her duties by acting as Cuomo’s surrogate. She chaired various task forces and committees and traveled around the state, giving her full support to Cuomo’s liberal agenda. However, because Hochul was not part of Cuomo’s inner circle of advisors, she was widely ignored by the news media, which viewed her as nothing more than figurehead advocating for Cuomo’s positions.
HOCHUL’S SPARSE RECORD OF ACCOMPLISHMENT
In the 14 months since she took over as governor, Hochul has continued Cuomo’s policies. She has very little record of her own upon which to campaign for election and has failed to address the state’s many existing problems. The once thriving manufacturing cities of upstate New York, including Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, have long been in a state of economic collapse, as indicated by the fact that they have some of the highest child poverty rates in the country. Because of its high taxes, the state is rapidly losing its middle-income population, as major companies continue to relocate to states with more favorable business climates, such as Florida and Texas.
Even worse, Hochul has been unable to formulate a clear platform of her own or explain to the voters what exactly she intends do for New York over the next four years if she wins the election. By default, voters must assume, Hochul is merely offering them more of the same: a liberal-dominated state in slow-motion fiscal collapse with spiraling crime and public disorder, as well as a discouraged and frightened middle-class population eager to leave the state as soon as they can.
HINTS OF SCANDAL AND CORRUPTION
Meanwhile, her administration has been generating mostly negative headlines over a variety of revelations. Hochul had appointed Harlem state senator Brian Benjamin to take over her old job as lieutenant governor, but within six months, he was forced to resign because the federal government indicted him on charges of bribery and wire fraud.
Hochul also approved a massive expenditure of $850 million in taxpayer funds to build a new sports stadium for her hometown Buffalo football team. It will also benefit Hochul’s husband, who is a senior executive at the firm that will manage the concessions at the new stadium.
Hochul also awarded a $637 million no-bid contract, under the temporary “Covid emergency” provisions, to one of her campaign donors who will provide at-home Covid test kits at retail cost.
HOW OVERCONFIDENCE HURT HOCHUL’S CAMPAIGN
But because she has been willing to rubber-stamp the radical agenda of the liberal Democrats and union leaders who run Albany, Hochul has based her campaign upon the assumption that she would naturally inherit most, if not all, of Cuomo’s considerable union, campaign donor, and liberal voter support. She has also been relying on the state’s liberal-friendly media, as well as her substantial fundraising advantage over Zeldin’s campaign, as substitutes for conducting an active ground campaign.
Specifically, she has made relatively few public appearances in the New York City area, which is the main source of Democrat voter strength in the state. Instead, Hochul has relied almost entirely on paid advertising, support from the state employee labor unions, and the state’s Democrat party organization to push her message, while at the same time pretending to be above the fray, and fully occupied with the day-to-day business of governing the state.
In that respect, Hochul’s passive “Rose Garden” strategy emulated that of Andrew Cuomo’s campaigns. But Cuomo was able to succeed with that approach because before he ran for governor, he was already well-known to voters throughout the state, both as the New York State attorney general as well as serving as the point man in state government affairs on behalf of his father during Mario Cuomo’s 12 years as governor. Hochul, by contrast, still remains largely unknown to most voters in New York State outside of the Buffalo area.
Cuomo also had a certain personal charisma, successfully projecting himself as a strong and effective leader in the local and national media. Behind the scenes, his bullying and combative tactics inspired fear as well as respect among his political opponents. All these are the very qualities which Hochul totally lacks.
Yet despite her obvious shortcomings, Democrat leaders were overly confident that Hochul would be able to coast to an easy victory as the caretaker of Cuomo’s policies. They also took comfort from the two-one advantage in registered voters they have over Republicans in New York State, as well as the fact that the Republican gubernatorial candidates chosen in recent election cycles were obscure and rather unexciting moderates. As a result, the Democrats were simply not expecting Hochul to face a serious challenger.
ZELDIN’S CANDIDACY OFFERING VOTERS A REAL CHOICE
But in choosing Lee Zeldin, New York State Republicans broke with that tradition. A fiscal and social conservative, Zeldin was an early and enthusiastic Trump supporter and has never, at any point, expressed any regrets for that position.
Zeldin, 42, is the Jewish son of David Zeldin and Merrill Schwartz. If he wins the election, he would become the third Jewish governor in New York State history, following Herbert Lehman and Eliot Spitzer. Zeldin grew up in Long Island’s Suffolk County, and was raised as a Conservative Jew. After completing law school in 2003, Zeldin enlisted as a lieutenant in the US Army, and served a tour of duty in Iraq with the elite 82nd Airborne Division. He retired from active duty in 2007, and now holds the rank of lieutenant colonel in the US Army Reserves.
Zeldin began his political career in 2010, representing the third district on Long Island in the New York State senate. He opposed several liberal social policy measures, and voted against a bill that would allow illegal aliens to obtain financial aid to study in state-owned colleges.
ZELDIN’S STRONG SUPPORT IN THE JEWISH COMMUNITY
Zeldin was elected to his current seat in Congress in 2014, on his second try. He has often said that he is proud to be one of only two Jewish Republicans in the House of Representatives. Zeldin is a member of the House Foreign Affairs committee, as well as its subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.
During his time in Congress, Zeldin compiled a strong pro-Israel record. He is co-chairman of the House Republican Israel Caucus and has said that because Israel is “America’s strongest ally,” Congress must “protect Israel’s right to self-defense.”
In 2017, Zeldin co-sponsored a bipartisan bill in the House called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act to “further combat the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.” He also strongly supported the Trump administration’s decision to relocate the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim in May 2018, as part of the United States’ formal recognition of the ancient city as the capital of Israel.
Zeldin was highly supportive of Trump’s efforts to bypass the failed two-state solution by negotiating separate peace agreements with Israel’s neighbors, now known as the Abraham Accords. He also nominated Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, the officials behind the accords, for a Nobel Peace Prize.
During his gubernatorial campaign, Zeldin has become a fixture in Orthodox communities across the state and has won the support of many leading rabbis — not only due to his vigorous support for Israel, but also because he has consistently fought to defend traditional Jewish values which have been under assault by Democrat officials and the secular media culture. Of primary concern to many are the threats against the yeshiva system. Zeldin has pledged to support the yeshivos in this battle.
Last week, during a visit to Williamsburg to consult with leaders of the chassidic community, Zeldin was presented with a personalized tallis bag by the local community in appreciation of his efforts on behalf of religious Jews.
In frum neighborhoods, the support for Zeldin is palpable and the energy level is very high, but the test will come on Election Day. If the religious community comes out in droves, that could tip the election for Zeldin.
“For the next nine days, do everything in your power everywhere and take nothing for granted,” Zeldin told the crowd in Williamsburg. “Let’s go out and save this city, let’s go out and save this state, so that we can walk our streets, we can travel in our subways, we can practice our religion, all in freedom and safety and [with] our kids’ education no longer under attack.”
Many prominent rabbis have publicly endorsed Zeldin’s candidacy as the best way to relieve the pressure being placed on yeshivos by the New York State Department of Education to interfere with their curriculum. Many have spoken out against Governor Hochul for failing to reign in the Department of Education, which threatens the continued religious independence of yeshivos.
On Sunday, Rav Yisroel Reisman and the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition (FJCC) at an event held at Rav Reisman’s home in Flatbush, which was attended by Reb Avrohom Fruchtandler, President of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, and many other communal leaders. Rabbonim endorsing at the meeting included Rav David Ozeri, Rav Moshe Scheinerman, Rav Meir Platnick, and Rav Ezra Rodkin. The FJCC represents over 200 shuls and yeshivos, hundreds of local business owners, and tens of thousands of local residents.
On Tuesday, it was reported that the Belz, Bobov, Bobov-45 and Satmar Rav Zalman Leib communities issued a statement endorsing Zeldin. Rabbonim of many communities have said that religious Jews have a moral obligation to support Zeldin’s candidacy with their votes on Election Day because he has fought for the causes that matter most to the Jewish community and supports the rights of parents to choose the type of education they want for their children.
Last week, the Yated editor wrote that he doesn’t understand how any religious Jews could vote for any Democrat. The article stated, “Not only are they not our friends, but when voting for a member of that party, you are enabling the Democrat Party to achieve a majority in the legislature, or Congress, or the Senate, depending on the race. And even if your local Democrat happens to be an exception, when you vote for him or her you are pulling the lever for higher taxes, for abortion, for no cash bail, for defunding the police, for bad judges, for woke policies, for demoralizing the culture, for empowering the left, and for much else.”
HOCHUL LETTER TO RELIGIOUS JEWISH COMMUNITY
Feeling the pressure, on Tuesday Hochul issued a letter to the religious Jewish community stating that she stands “with our Jewish brothers and sisters across the state and will continue to send a strong message that New York has zero tolerance for antisemitism… I will do everything in my power to protect you from evil and hate and will continue to fight for your right to practice your religion and teach your children with your religious education. I recognize that education is an important value in the Jewish community and I want to assure everyone that Jewish schools will always be treated with fairness and respect. I also fundamentally believe that every school across New York should have the resources to provide a proper education that gives every student the opportunity to be successful, and I remain committed to ensuring that continues to be the case.
“She went out to say that she is, “proud of the relationships that I have made over the years with the members and leaders of New York’s Orthodox Jewish communities. As Lieutenant Governor, I visited many Jewish summer camps in the Catskill mountains and I got to see, firsthand, the wonderful children coming through our yeshiva system across our great state. As Governor, my understanding of, and appreciation for the Jewish community has grown even stronger.
“I want the Jewish community to thrive in New York and educate their children here, as they add to the mosaic of our beautiful state. I will continue to work with Rabbis, Administrators and leaders in the Jewish community to help them in every way that I can, in order to keep the Jewish communities of New York growing and flourishing for many years to come.
“I ask you for your support and vote in this upcoming election and look forward to continuing to serve as your governor.
Another part of Zeldin’s appeal is the fact that he is now offering New York State voters real conservative policy choices for the first time in many years, proposing clear alternatives to the ruinous ultra-liberal social and economic policies instituted in recent years by the Democrat-dominated state government in Albany.
Zeldin has also proven to be an effective and tireless campaigner. Always on the move, he has been making campaign appearances across New York City, Long Island, and upstate, and meeting with many neighborhood organizations. Zeldin has been particularly successful in attracting grassroots support in New York’s Orthodox communities, as is obvious by the numerous Zeldin campaign lawn signs posted in Brooklyn and Monsey.
Zeldin is also media-savvy, having appeared often over the past two years on Fox News and liberal national media outlets to condemn Biden administration policies for unleashing inflation and tolerating the rise of a nationwide wave of violent crime.
STAYING ON MESSAGE
Zeldin has been disciplined enough to stay on message. He has continued to pound the winning issues of crime and inflation, while refusing to allow himself to be distracted by Democrat accusations that he is too close to Donald Trump, and an enemy of women’s rights because he supports the Supreme Court decision this summer that overturned Roe v. Wade.
That discipline became obvious last week, in the first and only debate between the two candidates. Zeldin made a series of specific and realistic promises to improve life in New York, including big reforms on matters of crime, taxes, energy policy, and spending cuts. Specifically, Zeldin asked Hochul why New York State was not locking up people who commit crimes in the state. He also accused Hochul of running a pay-to-play administration designed to benefit major Democrat party donors.
Meanwhile, Hochul spent most of her debate time trying to defend the failing liberal policies she inherited from Cuomo, repeating familiar Democrat talking points but adding no ideas of her own to the debate.
The most emotional issue in the debate was over the rise in violent crime. When Governor Hochul tried to blame the problem on the lack of sufficient gun control laws, Zeldin immediately responded that taking away guns alone would not solve the crime problem. He said, “You have people who are afraid of being pushed in front of oncoming subway cars, they’re being stabbed, beaten to death on the street with hammers. Go talk to the Asian-American community and how it’s impacted them with the loss of lives… We need to be talking about all of these other crimes, but instead Kathy Hochul is too busy patting herself on the back, [telling herself] ‘Job well done.’”
Zeldin also promised that, if he is elected New York governor, he will fire progressive Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg on his first day in office.
In response, Hochul has retreated into denial by insisting that New York does not have a growing crime problem and accusing the Republicans of manufacturing the issue by using false crime statistics
ZELDIN GETS HELP FROM FLORIDA’S RON DESANTIS
During a weekend rally, Zeldin shared the platform with Florida’s popular conservative governor, Ron DeSantis. In his opening remarks, Zeldin bemoaned current conditions in New York, which have made it too expensive, unsafe, and restrictive, prompting many longtime residents to leave the state.
“We want to be able to say that we live in the greatest state in the greatest country of the world,” Zeldin said. “But then we call up our friends and family in other places like Florida, and then they point out to us, ‘Doesn’t New York lead the country in out migration?’”
When DeSantis took the podium, he immediately placed the responsibility for the current crime wave on the current policies in Albany. “The crime problem has been totally self-inflicted,” the Florida governor declared. “You cut police budgets, you do things like eliminate cash bail and you have rogue prosecutors who won’t even enforce laws that they agree with — of course you’re going to have streets that are less safe. Of course you are going to have people that aren’t able to do the basics without fearing for their safety.
“Stop turning [criminals] loose on the street. They’ll commit a crime and they put them right back out,” DeSantis went on. “Stop releasing people early from prison. If you do the crime, you must do the time. We need to focus more on supporting the rights of the victims of crime and not be so concerned with the rights of the criminal. Lee Zeldin will not coddle these people. He will hold them accountable and you will be safer as a result.”
FIVE NEW YORK DEMOCRAT HOUSE SEATS NOW IN PLAY
The Republican resurgence in New York extends far beyond the race for governor. Several New York State congressional seats currently held by Democrats are also surprisingly up for grabs in the midterm elections on November 8.
The Cook Political Report lists five Democratic-held House seats as competitive (leaning toward one party or a toss-up). The most significant of these is the 17th Congressional District, which encompasses the northern suburbs of New York City, including Rockland County.
Veteran Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, who leads House Democrats’ campaign arm, has also been surprised to find himself in trouble as he campaigns for re-election in a district which encompasses the large Orthodox communities in Rockland County.
Much as in the New York gubernatorial race over the past month, the race in the 17th Congressional District has suddenly become much closer. Maloney’s Republican opponent, state Assemblyman Mike Lawler, has now reduced Maloney’s initial commanding lead in the polls to the point that both the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections now rate the contest to be a toss-up.
As a result, President Biden personally intervened on Maloney’s behalf. During a 15-minute phone call with the Rav Dovid Twersky, the Skverer Rebbe, Biden urged him to publicly endorse Maloney and instruct his followers to come out to vote for Maloney on Election Day.
REFLECTING A NATIONAL VOTER TREND
However surprising it may be for New York State — long considered to be a deep-blue one-party state — to be seen as up for grabs in the midterms, it is consistent with latest nationwide polling trends, which show more voters now supporting Republican candidates over Democrats in a generic congressional ballot, reversing the previous Democrat lead.
The reasons are clear. Voters across the country, and even in New York State, are now more worried about the issues which directly impact their daily lives, such as rising crime and inflation, than the items which now dominate the Democrats’ liberal agenda such as the theoretical threat from global warming, wokeness, extending the intrusion of big government into our private lives, and punishing the wealthy for their success.
The true extent of that voter discontent will be measured by the outcome of next week’s midterm election, which will point to the political direction this country will likely take in the 2024 presidential election and beyond.