Is Kathy Hochul, the Democratic governor of New York, really going to lose? Recent polls show a shockingly tight race between Hochul, who replaced the disgraced Andrew Cuomo last year, and Lee Zeldin, a Republican congressman and proud Donald Trump supporter. In one recent Quinnipiac University survey, the two candidates were just four points apart. Other pollsters have the race even tighter.
It goes without saying that a Hochul defeat would be a gutting loss for Democrats in New York—even the progressive flank that has long been wary of her. Zeldin is no George Pataki. He’s not even a relative moderate in the mold of Charlie Baker or Larry Hogan, two Republicans who led blue states while distancing themselves from Trump. Though he represents a Long Island swing district, he voted against certifying the 2020 election results. He was an early, enthusiastic Trump supporter and has never, at any point, recanted. He is a fiscal and social conservative; he celebrated the overturning of Roe v. Wade and has said he’d appoint a “pro-life” state health commissioner.
Given all of this, how is Zeldin nipping at the heels of Hochul, who governs a state that last voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 1984—a state that handed Cuomo a 24-point win in 2018? There is a confluence of factors, some particular to Hochul and others far beyond her control. It should be stated, plainly, that Hochul is still likely to win. Democrats far outnumber Republicans in New York, and Zeldin would need to strongly outperform past Republicans in deep-blue New York City to overcome Hochul’s advantages. She still has far more cash on hand—almost $11 million, at the last filing—and the support of every major labor union and elected official in the state. All of this is incredibly difficult for Zeldin to overcome.
But the Trumpian congressman is, Ron DeSantis–style, tapping into the current zeitgeist. He is a disciplined backlash candidate who has, from the start, spoken to anxieties over inflation and rising crime. While murders and shootings are down in New York City, burglaries, grand larcenies, and subway crime are all up, and on the news every night. There are middle-class Democrats, especially in the outer boroughs, who are going to vote for Zeldin on November 8. Zeldin has disingenuously blamed the crime spike on 2019 state bail reform laws; crime is up across America, including in red states—but the message, echoed by the tabloid media and TV, is working. Hochul herself weakened the laws, which partially ended cash bail, earlier this year. Moderates and conservatives don’t care. The national environment for Democrats at the moment is dismal, and Hochul is going to pay some kind of price for that.
Also, Zeldin is campaigning enthusiastically in ways Hochul simply is not. He shows up in New York City, on Long Island, and upstate. He courts the press, left and right alike. Right-wing super PACs are helping him compete with Hochul’s spending advantage. The governor, meanwhile, had been content with a Rose Garden strategy, making relatively few public appearances in the five boroughs. She has been slow to activate any kind of get-out-the-vote network and there is little in the way of a grassroots push—few lawn signs, volunteers, or even contacts from the campaign. She has, for months, blasted Zeldin on the airwaves for being a Trumper and being opposed to abortion rights, hoping that’s enough. He’s only gained momentum.
Granted, Cuomo campaigned in a very similar way. The difference, however, was that Cuomo was very well-known. His father had been governor for 12 years. He lived in Westchester County but was a familiar commodity in vote-rich New York City, particularly in working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods. White moderates liked him too. His imperiousness and vengefulness came in handy come election time. because few community groups, labor unions, or elected officials wanted to cross him, creating a unified front against any Republican rival. Zeldin has been able to meet with neighborhood organizations that never would have humored him if Cuomo were governor. They would’ve been terrified of reprisals from the executive office.
Hochul, meanwhile, hails from the Buffalo area and has not done enough to build connections in New York City. As Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, she visited often, but the media didn’t pay attention. As governor, she has staged few, if any, downstate rallies and done some press conferences. It just might not be enough to ward off a hard-charging Zeldin.
Most importantly, perhaps, Hochul has offered no overarching narrative or message for this campaign. Much of it has been a muddle. Cuomo was more of a brute party boss than a political talent, but even he understood that he had to tout certain accomplishments or make promises before seeking another term. Hochul has done little of either. When I asked her campaign recently what she wanted to do with the next four years, she had a nonspecific answer—and few voters could tell you what she did in 2021 or ’22. Hochul can tout a relatively successful budget—funds for public schools were boosted in an unprecedented way—and she does, at least, talk up luring a semiconductor chip factory to Syracuse. Her taxpayer giveaway for a Buffalo Bills stadium was, from an economic development standpoint, an absolute policy failure—but it is something that can probably pull votes out of Erie County.
If Hochul has something going for her now, it’s that more ordinary voters are aware of a tightening race. Democrats will probably be less complacent. Local elected officials, like Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, have been trying to sound the alarm, and other city Democrats will try to rally the troops in the final week. If Hochul somehow loses, there’s a chance she could drag down the State Senate Democrats with her, either significantly thinning the majority or handing control back to the Republicans. Such a scenario would be a disaster for working-class tenants who rely on Albany to safeguard housing laws or anyone seeking an abortion in this state, as a Governor Zeldin moves to slash state funding to clinics. Hochul and Zeldin would at least agree on this much: There are stark differences between them, and they want to take the state in radically different directions.