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Can Lee Zeldin Win?

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Can Lee Zeldin Win?

A Republican victory in New York State is unlikely—but possible. November 2, 2022
New York
Politics and law

New York bleeds blue. The Empire State hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office in 20 years, and that vote was a third term for a then-popular moderate governor, George Pataki. In 2022, with Donald J. Trump overshadowing the party, and with President Joe Biden having won more than 60 percent of the statewide vote in 2020, and, before that, then-governor Andrew M. Cuomo taking nearly 64 percent of the vote in 2018, the prospects for a red resurgence would appear dim. And yet: stranger things have happened. Indeed, they’re already happening.

The biggest hurdle for GOP gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, a Donald Trump-supporting congressman from conservative eastern Long Island, is New York’s voter-registration asymmetry. Statewide, the state’s 5.9 million active registered Democrats, as of February, far outnumber its 2.6 million Republicans. Within New York City, the imbalance, at nearly 3.2 million Democrats to fewer than half a million Republicans, is almost seven to one (nearly a million more city voters are independents or third-party members). In 2018, just 15 percent of city voters chose the Republican gubernatorial candidate. Zeldin would have to double that percentage, and more, to have a shot next week.

Counterintuitively, though, evidence for heterodoxy under pressure comes from the city itself. Last fall, New York elected Democrat Eric Adams as mayor. The details of that election matter to this race. In the 2021 mayoral election, with the murder level up 47 percent between 2019 and 2020, voters reasonably and overwhelmingly said that their top issue was rising crime. Of the four major candidates, Adams was the only one who consistently put cutting crime through more assertive policing at the top of his agenda. Adams’s rivals in the spring Democratic primary were a technocrat, Kathryn Garcia; an outsider, Andrew Yang; and an overt left-wing progressive, Maya Wiley. Even in a supposedly increasingly left-wing city, though, Wiley garnered only 201,000 votes—21.4 percent of the Democratic total, putting her in third place. If Democratic voters hankered for a proud progressive leader, one who repeatedly said that policing and prosecution were not the answers to violent crime, they didn’t show it last year.

Even in the general mayoral election last fall, voters across parties displayed a surprising willingness to choose an even more conservative option. In a low-turnout election—only 1.1 million of 4.6 million registered voters came out—the final tally was Adams, 754,000; Republican Curtis Sliwa, 312,000. The remainder went to third-party candidates.

No one would deny that this outcome was an Adams landslide. But look closer: in a city with a nearly seven-fold Democratic advantage in voter registration, Adams held only a 2.5-to-1 advantage over Sliwa. And Sliwa got 50,000 more votes than Joe Lhota won eight years earlier against Bill de Blasio, in a race with roughly the same turnout. New York City voters have recently shown no inclination to elect a far left-wing executive, but they have shown a growing, if marginal, willingness to vote Republican rather than Democrat, even over a more moderate Democrat than de Blasio was.

Mostly, though, they’ve shown no interest in voting at all. Turnout will matter in this race—and city voters do turn out in higher numbers in gubernatorial years, relative to mayoral years. In 2018, 2.1 million city voters cast ballots. But so far, turnout appears to favor the suburbs. As one self-described “conservative Republican” data cruncher notes on Twitter, as of a week before Election Day, “early voting” is only 41 percent of 2020 levels within New York City, but it’s much higher in the suburbs—80 percent in the mid-Hudson region, 72 percent on Long Island, 62 percent in northern suburbs. We still don’t know what suburbanites are excited about, of course: they may want to send Republicans a message about Roe v. Wade. But Hochul needs the city.

Why has Hochul, in an environment of growing pragmatism in voting in New York’s most liberal region, run a left-wing campaign? She has even dismissed concerns about crime as a right-wing conspiracy; not even Maya Wiley made that claim. Hochul has stuck to this message even as increasing numbers of black, Hispanic, and Asian-American voters in the city get fed up with rising robberies, thefts, and violent subway crime. Through late October, New York City has suffered nearly 103,000 felony crimes, more than the total 95,600 for the entire year in 2019. Murders, at 349 through late October, are down 14.3 percent from last year, but remain 26 percent above 2019 levels so far.

Zeldin has his New York baggage, too: unlike Sliwa, he is an unabashed, full-on Trump supporter. But Hochul has more to lose.

Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

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