CASTLETON-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — Lee Zeldin’s bid for New York governor was considered a longshot, but days before the election he pitched tightening polls and a nearly two-decade old upset as proof that he has a fighting chance.
“I think New York is ready to party like it’s 1994,” he said Thursday, alluding to the Prince song “1999.” Zeldin, who is running for governor, repeated the line again about an hour later to a large crowd that gathered by a stage built in front of his campaign bus in a golf course parking lot. He arrived at the rally via helicopter.
In 1994, Republican George Pataki astonished the state by unexpectedly defeating three-term governor Mario Cuomo, a Democrat. Pataki became the first GOP candidate to win the office since Nelson Rockefeller in 1970.
Zeldin hopes to end a two-decade drought for Republicans seeking statewide office in New York. His optimism is driven by recent polls that appear to show him closing the gap with Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul. But winning would still require him to overcome a sizable deficit and would be a shock to the nation.
On Thursday, Zeldin shared the stage outside Albany with a slate of Republican candidates, including Rep. Elise Stefanik, a rising star in the House Republican caucus who will likely hold a prominent role should her party win control of the chamber.
“New Yorkers are ready,” Zeldin said. “We’ve had periods over the course of decades where [at] that moment in time the state was at a crossroads and everyone stepped up united as New Yorkers to take control of our destiny as a state. And this is one of those moments.”
Conditions were similar in 1994, Pataki said, who has campaigned for Zeldin and ran on a similar message focused on the economy and crime.
“For the first time in 20 years, I honestly think the climate in New York is such that this will be a very close race and Lee Zeldin can actually win,” he said.
Republicans appear increasingly bullish, pouring greater amounts of money into the campaign. They have upped weekly spending in the race in each of the last three weeks of October, and are now poised to outspend Democrats in the race’s final week $6 million to $4.6 million, according to the ad-tracking firm Ad-Impact.
Hochul’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but she is not sitting idly by. President Joe Biden will hold a rally with her and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Sunday in Yonkers, New York, and she campaigned with Hillary Clinton and Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday.
Whether Zeldin could prove to be the difference maker as a candidate remains to be seen. Currently a congressman from Long Island, Zeldin has operated as a deeply conservative politician in Washington, D.C. and in Albany as a member of the state senate. He was also a close ally of Donald Trump, a name that was never mentioned at Thursday’s rally, and voted to overturn the election on Jan. 6.
Still, many Republican voters waiting for Zeldin and other candidates to take the stage on Thursday said they were ready for a change after 20 years without a win for a statewide GOP candidate and believed this was their chance.
“The polls are a little closer and it makes people feel like there’s a chance,” said Chet Oliver, who is a supervisor for Colonie, a small suburb town outside Albany. “Over the years, it never really felt like there was a chance.”
Stefanik has attempted to position herself as a “kingmaker” in New York GOP politics. She has thrown her weight behind a number of Republican candidates running for Congress, including Marc Malinaro, George Santos, Liz Joy and others running in the state. She also fundraised for and endorsed successful congressional candidates Claudia Tenney and Nicole Maliatokis in 2020.
Results this cycle have been mixed. Her support in a primary for an upstate congressional district of right-wing political activist Carl Paladino who lost to the state Republican chair drew the ire of some in the state party.
Democrats face headwinds this coming Election Day. Crime and inflation appear to be essential issues to voters this year, and many appear ready to punish incumbents.
But New York has remained a solid blue state for many years and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 3.6 million voters, according to New York State voter enrollment. While there are about 3 million unaffiliated voters in New York, a successful Republican candidate has to make inroads with registered Democrats.
There are examples of Republicans winning in liberal states, like Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Larry Hogan in Maryland, said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic consultant in New York. It requires, he said, a moderate Republican “with a history of standing up to the establishment of his own party.”
“The challenge is the Republicans are trying to run Trump-aligned characters in a state that knows Donald Trump better than any other and dislikes him more than any other,” Stavisky said. “There’s no guarantees and I don’t think anybody’s sleeping on it, but the public polls show [Hochul] should win and Democrats have a good shot at holding onto House seats.”
Pataki said that a Republican has to receive almost 1.5 million Democratic votes to win in New York. It’s a tall order, but Pataki said he has seen Zeldin working hard on his pitch to Democrats. Critics have said his conservative record in Congress will make it difficult to win Democratic votes.
“When I got elected they were saying the same things about me that they’re saying about Zeldin,” Pataki said. “I was going to be this awful, crazy Republican right-wing person who couldn’t govern. The voters gave me a chance and they started to see that, yes, Republicans care about the environment; yes, Republicans care about quality of life; yes, Republicans care about education.”
Zeldin promised at his rally to deliver a “coalition of Republicans and Democrats and independents” that would once again defy expectations on Election Day.
“There are some other groups and areas where [Democrats] are going to be very surprised by some very red dots on the map,” he said. “Upstate, around the rest of the state, they’re ready. They’re ready to fire Kathy Hochul.”