In his lone television debate with Kathy Hochul, Lee Zeldin was asked, given that he voted to overturn the 2020 election, if he would accept the results of the one he was in.
“Well, first off,” he responded, glaring at moderator Susan Arbetter, “losing is not an option.”
But Zeldin did lose, conceding Wednesday afternoon with a pointed message to Hochul. “Those controlling Albany should take note,” Zeldin said of his 5.6-point loss. “New Yorkers of all walks of life are sick of the attacks on their wallets, their safety, their freedoms, and the quality of their kids’ education and are hitting their breaking point, as proven by these results. As they take office in January, Governor Kathy Hochul and those controlling Albany must address the grave concerns voiced by the voters.”
Months ago, New York Republicans were down on Zeldin’s chances of winning. He was pro-life in a state that is overwhelmingly pro-choice, a fierce defender of Donald Trump in a place where voters loathe him, and most importantly, a Republican in a state that has shut the GOP out of statewide office since 2002, the longest Democratic win streak in the country. The fact that Republicans in the Empire State are now outnumbered not only by Democrats — two-to-one — but even by unaffiliated voters makes the simple math of winning a statewide election daunting.
But after focusing relentlessly on crime, Zeldin took advantage of a Hochul campaign that didn’t realize exactly how tight of a race it had on its hands until an internal poll showed her under 50 percent and the Republican within four points with just three weeks to go.
And now New York Republicans say they see a path forward to end their long years in the wilderness.
“The lesson we are all taking from this is, Wow, we could really pull this off,” said William F.B. O’Reilly, a longtime GOP consultant who last year wrote an op-ed cautioning the party against rallying around Zeldin, figuring that he would not be able to overcome the albatross of the January 6 attack.
“This is going to encourage a lot of other Republicans to run statewide. For the first time in a while I am genuinely enthusiastic about our future chances.”
As results come in, New York appears to be an outlier, one of the few places where Republicans performed better than they did in 2020. The GOP looks set to make major gains in the State Legislature, ending the Democratic supermajorities in both houses in Albany, and may flip enough congressional seats in New York alone to retake the majority, especially since a special master, and not the state Democrats, drew the redistricting lines.
The reasons, strategists on both sides of the aisle say, are manifold. For one thing, New York has a large population of Orthodox Jewish voters. Those voters swung hard against Democrats over issues like Israel and religious education, which may have contributed to the surprising loss of Sean Patrick Maloney, the head of the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee, in a seat just north of New York City, and to the defeat of Democratic state legislators in the same area.
In order to win, Republicans need to get around 35 percent of the vote in New York City. Zeldin, at last count, was at just above 30 percent. Over the last half-decade, noncollege voters, and in particular noncollege voters of color, have been moving into the GOP column. Many Republican strategists feared that this was simply a Trump phenomenon that would dissipate once he was no longer on the ballot. Zeldin, however, nearly doubled the GOP vote of the 2018 gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro by making inroads with outer-borough white and Asian voters. A few more points in that direction, and a Republican statewide candidate is suddenly looking at a very different map.
“You can play all the turnout games you want, but for a Republican to have a glimmer of hope they would need to make serious inroads with registered Democrats,” said Evan Roth Smith, a Democratic pollster. “You can do everything right in the swing districts and suburbs, and even if you do well in all of these places and clean up in Republican strongholds, you still need to win 10 percent of registered Democrats, and if you don’t it’s just not enough. It looks like Zeldin did well with Asian voters, and it looks like he did relatively well with Latino voters, but the domino that never fell was that you didn’t have wealthy white Democrats who were scared about crime and decided to vote Republican.”
Both Republicans and Democrats are wondering if a different kind of Republican could have actually won the election outright in 2022. Liberal northeastern states have made it a habit of electing and reelecting moderate Republican governors who have gone on to be overwhelmingly popular. In Vermont this week, Republican Phil Scott won reelection by a 47-point margin, while Vermonters elected a Democratic supermajority to the legislature.
“Lee Zeldin had a tremendous amount of money propping him up, but money isn’t the reason why a Republican hasn’t won statewide in 20 years,” said Democratic consultant Evan Stavisky. “It’s because Republicans keep nominating people like him, who are anti-abortion, Donald Trump–supporting election deniers who are in the pocket of the NRA.”
For weeks, Democrats have been grumbling about Hochul’s miscues, accusing her largely new–to–New York campaign staff of spending too much time on TV ads and not enough on a get-out-the-vote operation in New York City. And while there is some truth to that, Hochul also ran only three points behind Chuck Schumer and ended with more votes than any Democrat in history save for Andrew Cuomo in the historic Democratic wave year of 2018. Hochul also had to be on TV in order to answer the TV ads of Zeldin’s patron, Ron Lauder, who poured more than $11 million into a super-PAC devoted to hammering Hochul on the air.
Bigger issues for Hochul were fears over crime and her inability to convince the Legislature to change the state’s bail laws. As much as Republicans tarred big cities around the country as being little more than dens of rape and robbery, only in New York was the issue salient as the Legislature continues to wrestle with the fallout of a bail-reform law first passed in 2019.
Democrats were wiped out on Long Island in 2021 thanks to the law, and were wiped out further in 2022. In Staten Island, which shares many similarities in demographics and concerns about crime as Long Island, Donald Trump won by 15 points in 2020; in 2022, Lee Zeldin won by 34 points.
And if New York proved more right-leaning than much of the country on Tuesday, and may again in four years, Democrats say a lot of it is for one simple reason: New York has the New York Post, which acts as a house organ for the GOP, drives coverage to other news outlets, and is widely read outside of New York City.
“The Post just kills us, day after day,” said one Hochul adviser. “There is no other place in the country where a Democrat has to deal with something like the New York Post.”
It all adds up to enough to give Republicans some reason for hope at last. Presuming that the crime issue remains relevant, and that longtime Democratic strongholds in the city shift ever so slightly to the GOP, they could at last break the streak and regain the governor’s mansion that once belonged to Republicans like George Pataki and Nelson Rockefeller.
“New York is so stacked against us, but the Democrats made this race a referendum on abortion, Donald Trump, the so-called threat to democracy,” said Rob Astorino, the former Westchester County executive who got 41 percent of the vote against Andrew Cuomo in 2014. Citing the gains in Congress and the down ballot, he added, “We didn’t win the big enchilada this time, but we won a bunch of side dishes. We made significant gains. We can build on this.”