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New York governor’s race more competitive than expected as crime concerns take center stage

<i>AP/Reuters</i><br/>The Democratic winning streak is facing an increasingly serious challenge from Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin
The Democratic winning streak is facing an increasingly serious challenge from Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin

By Gregory Krieg and Athena Jones, CNN

The last time New York elected a Republican statewide, when Gov. George Pataki clinched his third term, Rudy Giuliani was still being called “America’s Mayor” and Manhattan was in the thick of rebuilding a little more than a year after the 9/11 attacks.

Two decades later, the Democratic winning streak is facing an increasingly serious challenge from Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin, who is running against Gov. Kathy Hochul for control of Albany in the midst of heightened worries over crime, especially in New York City, and a broader pandemic malaise. The two will meet on the debate stage Tuesday night.

And though the national congressional map is trending toward Republicans, the prospect of a narrow result in New York — one of 36 states electing a governor this year — seemed unthinkable even a few months ago, especially as Democrats turned their attention to state governments in the wake off the Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade.

Hochul took office in August 2021, when now-former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who ruled state politics for a decade, stepped down after facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment, which he denied, although nearly a dozen of them were corroborated by the Democratic state attorney general’s probe. The Buffalo-born lieutenant governor, Cuomo’s second deputy during his time in charge, had next-to-no political brand downstate, especially in the city, which has reliably delivered overwhelming margins for Democrats in big ticket contests.

Zeldin, meanwhile, emerged from a feisty Republican primary in large part due to his unyielding alliance with former President Donald Trump and a steady base of support on Eastern Long Island, where he has served as a member of Congress since 2015. That followed a stint in the state Senate beginning in 2011.

To many political observers here, the general election was expected to be less of a race than a coronation of the state’s first-ever woman to be elected governor. Hochul is a fundraising powerhouse in good standing with the party’s moderate mainstream; Zeldin is loathe to admit Trump lost the 2020 election. Biden defeated the former President by nearly 2 million votes in New York, more than 60% of the ballots cast statewide. But with Election Day 2022 now two weeks off, recent polling has shown a tightening race.

And while that dynamic is hardly unique to this campaign, a pair of polls among likely voters released a week ago amped up anxiety among some Democrats. The first, from Siena College, saw Hochul’s lead dwindle to 11 percentage points from a margin of 17 points last month. Quinnipiac University’s survey, out later in the day, again sent alarm bells ringing for Democrats, as Hochul’s lead fell to just 4 percentage points.

The Hochul campaign reacted to the news by pointing a finger at outside spending on Zeldin’s behalf from super PACs largely funded by Ronald Lauder, heir to the cosmetics giant Estée Lauder, that have poured an estimated $8 million into the race. They also argued that the Quinnipiac poll “substantially undercounted Democrats” likely to vote.

“With just three weeks until Election Day, the governor isn’t taking anything for granted and will continue to contrast her strong record of results with Lee Zeldin’s MAGA agenda,” Hochul spokesman Jerrel Harvey said in a statement at the time.

Throughout the campaign, Hochul has hammered Zeldin over his connection to Trump and his vote in Congress against certifying Joe Biden’s election win. She has also pointed to his record of voting against abortion rights and new gun control measures while in government and warned that placing a Republican in the state’s top job represents an existential threat to abortion access in New York.

CNN made repeated efforts to contact Zeldin, whose campaign spokesman did not reply.

Crime messaging takes over

In the race’s closing stretch, though, rising fears over crime — the perception in some cases outpacing the statistics — has become the dominant issue. This past weekend, Hochul and New York Mayor City Eric Adams came together to announce a new subway safety plan the governor said centered on the “three C’s” — “cops, cameras, care.”

The plan will put more officers from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is run by the state, at major commuter hubs, and pay — again, from state coffers — for additional overtime shifts for the New York Police Department. There is also new funding for a pair of programs designed to aid homeless and mentally ill New Yorkers.

Zeldin, speaking to reporters that same day, dismissed the initiative as a political ploy set in motion by Hochul’s apparently shrinking lead in the polls.

“You think a press conference is going to fix it? And a press conference that isn’t even going to address all these other issues,” Zeldin said. “Now, gimme a break. New Yorkers are smarter than they’re getting credit for from this governor. They’re going see right through what they were announcing at today’s conference.”

Hochul and Adams have held similar events in the past, as the governor noted in an interview with CNN. But the announcement — which arrived at around the same time as a new Hochul ad promising “a safe walk home at night, a subway ride free of fear, a safer New York for every child” — underscored the importance of public safety as a potentially decisive issue at the ballot box.

Calling the new programs a “continuation of a long-term strategy,” Hochul said the addition of MTA police would “free up NYPD to do their job and be more visible. That’s what they want. That’s what the city wants and that’s what the people on the streets want as well. They want to feel that sense of police officer presence because that gives you that sense that you’re going to be okay. And we’re very in tune with that.”

But not all residents are feeling that security.

Kim Parker, who has lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, for nearly 30 years, said last week that she planned to vote for Zeldin because of “his stance on safety.” An independent who supports abortion rights but left the Democratic Party four years ago, Parker told CNN she no longer felt safe on the streets at night or riding the subway.

“It’s here. And you hear about it all the time. In the neighborhood. It used to be elsewhere. But now it’s in our own neck of the woods,” Parker said of street crime like sidewalk robberies and storefront break-ins.

Like so many other Zeldin voters, and many moderate-to-conservative Democrats, she placed the lion’s share of the blame for the uptick in crime on the state’s 2019 bail reform law, which made it more difficult for judges to hold suspects in pre-trial detention. The law has been curtailed twice since first passing, but opponents want it wiped off the books.

“The people who do the wrong thing, there’s no consequences to them,” Parker said. “And the poor police, if they do arrest them, by the time the paperwork is done, the guy’s out on the street again. It’s horribly frustrating.”

Hochul has, to some extent, found herself caught between two hard places on the bail reform issue. Adams, a fellow Democrat and one of her strongest validators, met with stiff resistance from the Democratic-controlled state legislature when he asked them to further roll back the law. Hochul has been less out-front, defending it but focusing her criminal justice platform on new or proactive plans.

“If this is a really close race or if the governor loses, which I don’t think she will, but if she does, there’ll be a question about the role of bail reform in this election,” said Chris Coffey, a Democratic strategist and chief executive of Tusk Strategies.

New York isn’t all deep blue

The narrow margins now being contemplated by top New York Democrats also speak to outside misconceptions about the state, which is typically regarded as a liberal — if not leftist — Northeastern party stronghold. While recent elections might seem to confirm that, the state is actually “varying shades of blue,” as Fordham University political scientist Christina Greer put it.

“Some Democrats are concerned that the party is going too far left, whether it is immigration or race-related issues or economics and minimum wage or LGBTQ+ issues, you name it. And so I think we’re seeing some of that reflected in the polling,” Greer said of Hochul’s numbers. “Do I think that she’ll be OK on November 8th? I think so. And if not, then that says a lot more about New York State, which is what I’ve been screaming from the rooftops for a long time — this state is red, red, red, and it’s just a few blue cities that are holding it together every four years.”

The rise of Adams, who was elected mayor last year in large part on a promise to crackdown on guns and violent crime, has proven that even within the city, there is an estimable base of more conservative-minded, older Black and ethnic outerborough voters who, under certain circumstances, can upend an election. Especially if the more liberal candidate does not have strong connections in swaths of the city home to the party’s most loyal voters.

“Kathy Hochul isn’t from New York City. She doesn’t have a lengthy relationship with community leaders, preachers, and rabbis in the same way that Andrew Cuomo did,” said Joe Borelli, the GOP minority leader in the New York City Council and a “volunteer” spokesman for the Zeldin-backing Save Our State PAC. “And separate from that, we’ve seen a shift demographically toward the Republican Party in the Asian community, the Russian-speaking community, the Jewish community, and many Hispanics.”

Hochul’s schedule on the trail — though it’s been criticized by some as too light on the political side, a so-called “Rose Garden campaign” — has reflected, especially in recent weeks, the need to shore up robust support in the five boroughs. On Sunday alone, she spoke at five Harlem churches.

“I know these streets. I have been all over Harlem, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island,” she told CNN after addressing congregants at Canaan Baptist Church Of Christ on West 116th Street. “I know this area. People may not have known me during those eight years (as lieutenant governor), but I’ve been showing up.”

Sylvia Johnson, a human resources executive from East Harlem, walked by the church as Hochul left. She had already seen the governor, earlier that morning, at nearby Mount Neboh Baptist Church, and — especially when it came to a promise for new mental health services — liked what she heard on the subject of crime.

“All of these issues have been in existence and perhaps have just escalated since they have both been in office,” Johnson said of Hochul and Adams. “But I definitely feel that it’s unfair (to blame them) and there really hasn’t been enough time to really make, in my personal point of view, any profound impact.”

But that patience — and the belief that Democrats should be cut some slack and allowed some space to implement their plans — has less purchase in more traditionally conservative, working-class White neighborhoods where Zeldin has put in most of his work.

And the headwinds facing Hochul, Coffey said, were broader and more complex than just crime and bail reform, pointing to the late surge in outside spending for Zeldin, the New York Post’s unrelenting drumbeat of negative stories about her, and that the lone competitive House race in New York City is taking place largely on Staten Island, which will likely benefit Republicans.

“You add those things up and, if the governor were campaigning every day in New York City, it would not matter. People aren’t paying attention to that,” Coffey said. “They’re being flooded with ads on crime and they’re reacting to it.”

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