Kathy Hochul managed to beat back a serious, last-minute surge by Lee Zeldin and win her first full term as governor, after the Republican congressman gained on her by focusing almost singularly on the issue of crime.
The general election started with Hochul as the heavy favorite, despite only having a few months’ experience as governor since taking over from Andrew Cuomo following his resignation last summer. In the June primary, she won 66 percent of the vote against challenges from the left, by the city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams, and the right, from Congressman Tom Suozzi, who, in a taste of what was to come in the fall, attacked her over crime. Zeldin, meanwhile, secured the Republican nomination by a double-digit margin over his closest rival, Andrew Giuliani.
The governor was a prolific fundraiser, easily amassing a colossal war chest in the millions. In addition to the incumbency advantage, Hochul had history on her side: New York hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office since George Pataki’s 1994 bid for governor. In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, her victory against Zeldin seemed assured. But there were already signs that the landscape was changing.
Crime began to emerge as a top issue among voters, even supplanting inflation, which had been expected to dominate the election cycle. As she fielded attacks on crime during the primary, Hochul performed a careful balancing act, defending the merits of bail-reform efforts while simultaneously pushing for changes to the laws to appease critics. Her initial ten-point proposal was not supported by the Democratic majority in the State Legislature, which had originally passed the changes to New York’s bail laws; ultimately, the revisions that she signed into law in the state’s budget were much smaller than she’d proposed. The issue continued to follow the governor with Zeldin as its biggest promoter.
Zeldin made crime a central issue of his campaign, claiming that Hochul was making New York unsafe and vowing to declare a state of emergency on crime and end cashless bail. A prominent ad from the congressman released in September used surveillance footage of violent attacks and assaults with a voice-over telling viewers, “You’re looking at actual violent crimes caught on-camera in Kathy Hochul’s New York, and it’s getting much worse on Kathy Hochul’s watch.”
It seemed to have an impact. In October, a series of polls showed Zeldin gaining on Hochul with one survey from Quinnipiac University showing the governor’s once sizable lead slashed to a four-point margin. Support for the congressman was growing in the suburbs and further upstate and even seemed to be increasing in New York City itself, a result predicted by the Republicans’ improved fortunes in last year’s elections.
In response, Hochul hit the issue harder, running ads explicitly on crime and making appearances on the trail with Mayor Eric Adams for a subway-safety plan and Attorney General Leitita James on red-flag laws. When Zeldin would attack on public safety, she would parry and point to his own resistance to gun-control measures.
On the other side, Hochul sought to tie Zeldin to Donald Trump, highlighting his vote to decertify the 2020 election results and his long-standing support for the former president. And following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the governor embraced the issue with a fervor, warning voters about a potential risk to New York’s abortion laws owing to her opponent’s strong opposition to the procedure. Zeldin tried to counter that line of attack by announcing he had no intention of changing the state’s laws on abortion.
In the days leading up to the election, looking for a last-minute campaign boost, both sides brought out heavy hitters from their respective parties. Last Thursday, Hochul was joined by Vice-President Kamala Harris and former secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a rally at Barnard College, a big show of force from the Democratic Party’s most prominent women. President Biden and former president Bill Clinton also traveled to New York to stump for Hochul the weekend prior to Election Day.
Zeldin campaigned with Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida and Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, both of whom are on many political experts’ shortlists of potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates.