Why New York Republicans Are Dreaming of a Banner Year

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Reece T. Williams/Newsday RM via Getty Images

Almost unnoticed by New York’s Democrat-dominated political Establishment, the Republican Party just held a successful state convention and emerged from the two-day event in Garden City with good reason to think they have a shot at victory later this year.

“There’s no better place for us to be than Nassau County, which is the beating Republican heart of the State of New York right now,” GOP chairman Nick Langworthy told the delegates. It was a reminder, repeated by many speakers, that Republicans went on an electoral tear on Long Island last fall that the party hopes to repeat statewide.

GOP candidate Bruce Blakeman unseated incumbent Democrat Laura Curran to become Nassau County executive, and Republicans took two open countywide seats — for comptroller and district attorney — that had been held by Democrats. In Suffolk, Republicans increased their control of the county legislature and saw challenger Ray Tierney handily defeat incumbent Democratic district attorney Tim Sini. (“This is a red wave,” Sini acknowledged in his concession speech.)

On that same night, three statewide ballot proposals championed by Democrats — measures that would have allowed for same-day voter registration, simpler absentee voting, and a cap on the number of state senate seats — went down in flames. Complacent Democrats, it turned out, did little campaigning for the proposals, while Republicans bought ads and organized in opposition.

State Republicans, understandably, come into this election year with high hopes and contagious enthusiasm. They hope that the issues that carried them to victory last year — primarily opposition to mask mandates and bail reform — will work again and that Democrats will again get caught napping.

“We’re working hard and feeling good about how things are heading,” Representative Lee Zeldin told me. Zeldin got over 80 percent of the weighted delegate vote and the backing of 60 out of 62 county-level party organizations to become the official party favorite in the race for governor. His chief rivals for the nomination, Andrew Giuliani and Rob Astorino, will be required to gather thousands of signatures from registered Republicans — an expensive and time-consuming operation — in order to appear on the primary ballot in June.

Zeldin, the front-runner, has already been endorsed by the state Conservative Party. He shrewdly champions right-wing positions with a pleasant, friendly demeanor and, like most speakers at the convention, said nothing in his acceptance speech about his close support for Donald Trump (Zeldin voted against the certification of Joe Biden’s election) or about hot-button issues like marriage equality (years ago, as a state senator, Zeldin voted against legalizing same-sex unions).

When asked why he didn’t mention Trump or the January 6 attacks, Zeldin had a ready answer. “What New Yorkers are asking me to talk about are the attacks on their wallets, their safety, their freedom, the quality of their kids’ education,” he said.

Each one of those points — the rising inflation rate, the frightening rise in crime, the loss of “freedom” from COVID restrictions, and the racially charged debate over teaching the history of American slavery and segregation — is an issue that Republicans are running on throughout the nation. As the GOP has discovered, talking about them gets voters angry, motivated, and ready to toss out incumbent Democrats.

Rob Astorino, the former Westchester County executive, was the Republican nominee for governor in 2014 and got a respectable 41 percent of the vote against the former governor Andrew Cuomo. He hopes to capitalize on the same angry mood that led to the Long Island red wave. Astorino says the key to a GOP victory is to carry upstate, get a small margin in New York City, and win in the suburbs.

“As a Republican, we’ve gotta get about 30 percent in New York City,” he told me. “That is definitely there. You saw in the [2021] mayoral what [GOP candidate] Curtis Sliwa got.” (About 28 percent of the vote). “Long Island is going to vote Republican no matter who the ticket is in November; they did that last year. Upstate is going to be solid for a Republican. It’s going to be getting to the 30 percent and building those coalitions.”

Candidate Andrew Giuliani, the son of the former mayor, thinks he can hit the New York City number and run away with the election. “When you end up looking at the last six polls, we have been leading by double digits in every single one,” he says. Giuliani has added Sliwa to his campaign operation and took the unusual step of lauding Trump in a speech to the convention — something no other candidate did.

“I wanted to make sure that everybody knew that this is the party of Trump. And the fact that nobody else in the Republican Party over the last couple of days mentioned it shows me they’re running away from it. And I think that is a big mistake,” he told me.

The typical belief among Republican strategists is that being associated with the former president (who lost New York twice) is extremely risky because Trump enrages and mobilizes Democrats — who have 6.1 million registered voters statewide, a number that dwarfs the GOP’s 2.8 million.

But that may not matter this time. The GOP is counting on Democrats remaining smug about their majorities, complacent about their campaign operations, tone-deaf about voter concerns, and caught up in internal divisions that pit socialists and reformers against moderates and incumbents (not to mention the ongoing sniping between Cuomo and Attorney General Letitia James).

It’s the stuff political upsets are made of.

Why New York Republicans Are Dreaming of a Banner Year