Gubernatorial Bump: How Will Hochul-Zeldin Race Impact East End Candidates?

Governor Kathy Hochul (left) and U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin 2022 election candidates
Governor Kathy Hochul (left) and U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin
Photos courtesy of Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul and Zeldin campaign

All eyes are on the New York State governor’s race this Election Day, but the gubernatorial runoff may also sway the results of local races further down ballots on the East End.

RELATED: Voter’s Guide 2022: Candidates Vie to Rep East End in Albany, Congress

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), the Twin Forks area GOP congressman running to unseat Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, has gained traction with crime and inflation as his campaign talking points, as the governor is on the defense after initially focusing on painting her challenger as a danger to abortion rights and extremist ally of former President Donald Trump.

With polls showing that race at the top of the ticket to be a closer call than many expected, the question is whether it will have an effect on the congressional race to replace Zeldin or the three state legislative seats on ballots in the Hamptons and on the North Fork this cycle.

“Voter turnout is going to be key,” said Laura Jens-Smith, the former Riverhead town supervisor who now chairs the Riverhead Democratic Committee.

The notion that the governor’s office would be winnable for Republicans in New York, where there are twice as many Democrats as Republicans and a GOP governor has not been elected in 20 years, is the latest warning for Democrats that they could face deep losses in this year’s midterm elections.

Hochul has held a heavy fundraising advantage over Zeldin for much of the race, but Zeldin has been buffeted by spending from outside groups that have received donations from the Republican Governors Association and about $9 million from Estée Lauder heir Ronald Lauder, who has a house in Wainscott.

GOP Primary preview graphic: Vote 2022 with the United States of America flag election candidates
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Hochul & Zeldin Vie for Gubernatorial Vote

“Losing is not an option,” Zeldin, who recently rallied with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, told Hochul when the governor asked the congressman during their lone debate if he’d concede the race should he lose. He later said that he would concede if he lost.

Siena College polling since July, including as recently as mid-October, has shown Hochul with a significant lead over Zeldin. But other recent polls have suggested Hochul has only a modest advantage. Hochul, who took over as governor in August 2021 after former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned amid sexual harassment allegations, is trying to win the office outright this year, which would make her the first woman to be elected New York governor.

Despite the congressman closing the gap in the polls, local Democratic leaders and candidates are keeping their game face on in the final week before the election.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who will face Zeldin in November, stands with Lieutenant governor Antonio Delgado during the primary election night party, Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in New York
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul stands with Lieutenant governor Antonio Delgado during the primary election night party, Tuesday, June 28, 2022, in New YorkAP Photo/Mary Altaffer

“I’ve run in red waves like 2010 and 2014 and blue waves like 2018,” said state Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. (D-Sag Harbor), a longtime independent seeking a 14th term who recently changed his affiliation to Democratic. “I’ve been on the Republican, Democratic, and Independence lines. Voters know me and what I’ve accomplished. Even in this polarized environment, voters know when you’ve done the job. I trust the voters.”

Peter Ganley, the North Fork Republican committeeman challenging Thiele, predicted the Zeldin will be governor.

“I’m seeing a level of energy, enthusiasm and hope I have never seen before,” he said. “It’s not about a ‘red wave’ or Republican momentum, it’s about people fed up with the direction of our state and want to change course. It’s not just Republicans who want solutions to violent crime, the highest taxes in America, and rampant, embarrassing and constant corruption scandals in New York.”.

Thiele said he maintained his confidence that Hochul will win, as did Jay Jacobs, who chairs the state and Nassau County Democratic committees.

“I expect a competitive Election Day with a very well-deserved, favorable outcome for the governor,” Jacobs told Dan’s Papers.

Jens-Smith agreed.

“We are already seeing Democrats heavily engaged and hearing from many disgruntled Republicans unhappy with the direction their party is taking,” she said. “Local Democrats and women realize what is at stake, with Hochul in office women’s rights will remain protected. Hochul and our local candidates are fighting to keep New York affordable even after the Republicans have taken away the [State and Local Tax] SALT deduction. So no I’m not worried, we have a great slate ready to serve the people of New York.”

Sandra Benedetto, vice president of the Southold Democratic Committee, said she doesn’t worry about the polls.

“We have a lot of momentum,” she said. “We see a lot of positive energy. We’re feeling very confident.”

Despite the polling, a week before the election the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rated the Empire State’s gubernatorial race results were “likely Democratic,” meaning it is “not considered competitive at this point, but have the potential to become engaged.”

As for the 1st Congressional District race for Zeldion’s open seat, CPR predicts Republican Nick LaLota, a former Amityville village trustee, has the advantage over Suffolk Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac). The report rates the race as leaning Republican and “considered competitive,” with the GOP having an advantage.

In the other two state races on ballots this election, state Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) is facing a challenge from Democratic committeeman Skyler Johnson and state Assemblywoman Judi Giglio (R-Riverhead) is facing Wendy Hamberger, an attorney from Center Moriches. Odds are slim that the GOP would flip the Assembly from Democratic control, but Palumbo hopes Republicans can flip enough state Senate seats to take back control of Albany’s upper legislative chamber.

Hochul isn’t done fighting yet. On Halloween, she slammed Zeldin’s recent suggestion that teachers and school safety agents should start carrying firearms as a way to curtail the bodycount of school shootings. The week prior, Zeldin told CBS2 New York’s Marcia Kramer that arming teachers and school security guards would help save lives in the event that a gunman opens fire on school grounds.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) celebrates his win on June 28, 2022 becoming the Republican candidate for governor.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) celebrates his win on June 28, 2022 becoming the Republican candidate for governor.Photo by Bruce Adler

“It improves the safety of the building,” Zeldin said in the interview. “If there was someone who came into that building, you would be saying, thank God that teacher who was safely and securely carrying that firearm and was well-trained was able to intervene and to save lives.”

Zeldin also suggested that school safety agents should be equipped with bulletproof vests, like police officers. Hochul rebuked that idea during a campaign stop with anti-gun violence advocacy groups.

“Lee Zeldin not only supports guns on subways and in places of worship and in our parks and in places like Times Square,” Hochul told reporters. “He also now believes that the way to make your kids safer is to make sure that every classroom has a gun in it. Let that sink in. Every classroom should have a gun in it. That’s not happening under our administration. Not now, not ever.”

Zeldin’s campaign didn’t respond to PoliticsNY’s requests for comment.

The attack was the latest sign that Hochul has sharply pivoted her campaign message to concentrate on crime and highlighting her record on combating gun violence in the last couple of weeks. The shift in tactics is in response to Zeldin’s almost singular focus on crime across the state.

Rates of violent crime and killings have broadly increased around the U.S. since the coronavirus pandemic, in some places climbing from historic lows. Rates of murder, rape, robbery and assault have all increased across New York since the pandemic, and all of those crimes except robbery have increased from 2012 to 2021, according to New York state data.

“We’re not going to just look away, we’re not going to just ignore the reality,” Zeldin said. “Whether it’s the videos that all day long are popping up on social media. Whether it’s on our subways, it’s on the streets. You don’t have to live inside of New York City to become a victim of violence. Just over the last few weeks. New Yorkers are saying ‘enough.’ They want to see our law enforcement supported. They want DAs to enforce the law. And they want to roll back these pro-criminal laws that have been passed.”

The 10-day early voting period ends November 6 ahead of Election Day on November 8. To find polling places, call the Suffolk County Board of Elections at 631-852-4500.

–With Associated Press and PoliticsNY

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