How far can Lee Zeldin go in New York City?
As the race for Governor of New York State tightens, all eyes shift to the five boroughs. What type of coalition will Lee Zeldin build? Should Kathy Hochul be concerned?
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After easily dispatching two sets of primary opposition in the early summer months, Kathy Hochul had reason to be confident.
Despite not being a stranger to criticism or controversy - be it one billion dollars in taxpayer subsidies for a new Buffalo Bills stadium, or the abrupt resignation of her Lieutenant Governor, Brian Benjamin, following his arrest on corruption charges - Hochul took over 2/3 of the vote in the June Primary.
Aided by a significant financial advantage, both Hochul and her running mate, Lieutenant Governor Antonio Delgado, won every county in the State with a “rose garden” strategy, despite whispers behind the scenes.
With State Democrats reckoning with the fallout of an unprecedented redistricting cycle, while collectively bracing for a myriad of contested House seats from the Hudson Valley to Long Island - Hochul, perched at the top of the ticket, appeared to be insulated from any potential Republican waves. The Dobbs decision, which officially overturned Roe v. Wade (and the resulting in a Democratic bump in the polls) only served to validate Hochul’s electoral security. National media - fixated on consequential swing state Senate races in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona - would have little bandwidth for a Governor’s race in a state Joe Biden won by twenty-four points. A rose garden strategy would suffice once again.
However, Hochul’s opponent, Eastern Long Island Congressman Lee Zeldin, would not go quietly. Zeldin, a former State Senator who served in the military, was accustomed to winning purple districts with an unabashed right-leaning message. Zeldin bested incumbent Democrat Congressman Tim Bishop - who had held New York’s 1st Congressional District for over a decade - in the red wave of 2014. Since then, he has habitually defeated seasoned Democratic opposition every two years, while shedding his old guard Conservatism for more pro-Trump bona fides - reflective of the national tide taking hold in his party. While his district includes some of the wealthiest enclaves in the entire Country, like the Hamptons, Zeldin built his political base in-and-around the town of Brookhaven - a more prototypical middle-class Long Island community.
Perhaps nervous that Democrats in the State Legislature would gerrymander his Congressional District, Zeldin leapt at the opportunity to run for Governor, announcing his bid midway through 2021.
Editor’s Note: Had Zeldin opted to hold his NY1 Congressional Seat, he likely could have kept the seat indefinitely following the Special Master’s decision.
In the Republican Primary, Zeldin easily defeated Andrew Guliani (son of the former Mayor), Rob Astorino (former GOP candidate for Governor), and Harry Wilson. The primary was an interesting flashpoint in Republican politics, with Wilson - a wealthy, pro-choice former Obama advisor, who had come the closest of any Republican to winning statewide office in NY since 2002 (he lost to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in 2010) - cast as a Rockefeller Republican, with Zeldin - a Trump ally who voted to decertify the 2020 Presidential Election - more in lockstep with the current GOP electorate. In spite of Astorino prevailing in Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Duchess counties - with Guliani taking four of the five boroughs - Zeldin won convincingly, taking 44% of the vote in the four-way race, while running roughshod over his competition on Long Island, and carrying a majority of Upstate counties to boot. Wilson, who would have made a formidable candidate in the general election, failed to resonate with the Republican electorate, finishing in a distance fourth place.
Having been out on the campaign trail for over a year, Zeldin maintained his breakneck pace as Summer crested into Fall. With Democratic voters’ bandwidth spread between a June and August primary, coupled with blowout Blue victories in every Governor’s race since 2006, complacency had set in - which Zeldin proceeded to take advantage of.
In the past month, Hochul’s once double-digit advantages have diminished. In the past three weeks, Emerson has Zeldin’s deficit at eight points, SurveyUSA put the gap at six points, with Quinnipiac showing the incumbent Governor only ahead by four. While Hochul remains a considerable favorite, the margin is too close for comfort for many Democratic operatives.
Since Eric Adams first took a polling lead he would never relinquish in last year’s Mayoral campaign - crime, and even more consequentially - the narratives and perceptions of crime - have remained an omnipresent talking point in politics throughout New York City and the state at large. From Adams’ first day in office, most violent crime has plateaued, yet media mentions of the issue have spiked considerable, further stoking anxiety and fear amongst the general public. The Mayor’s fixation on crime has only hurt the Governor, creating a wedge issue within the Democratic electorate while presenting Zeldin, who has highlighted crime as the seminal concern of the race, a ripe opportunity to peel off support from disaffected Democrats.
Hochul is also bearing the brunt of high inflation, which consistently ranks as a top two issue among surveyed voters. Hitting on these notes, Zeldin has fervently made the case that Hochul, and unchecked Democratic power in the State’s highest offices, remains detrimental to safety, quality of life, and financial prospects.
With the race tightening amidst Zeldin’s momentum, Hochul has scrambled to amend her strategy - packing her campaign schedule with stops throughout New York City, while tapping elected officials like Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, to organizations like the Working Families Party, and everyone in between, from Eric Adams to Adriano Espaillat to Carl Heastie - with bolstering her get out the vote operation in democratic strongholds like Manhattan’s West Side, Central Brooklyn, and the Northeast Bronx.
As we enter the homestretch of the campaign, Hochul’s relationships with New York City power brokers, and more importantly, the voters themselves - will come into focus. To what degree will it matter that neither Hochul, nor her Lieutenant Governor, Antonio Delgado, have durable ties to the State’s largest population center? It is worth remembering that before the Democratic Primary, Hochul faced criticism for her lack of campaigning in the City’s working class Black and Latino neighborhoods.
Once again, New York City is set to play a defining role in the race at large.
For Hochul and State Democrats, the top concern is voter apathy - where lackluster turnout due to an “enthusiasm gap” fuels a doomsday scenario where the Governor cannot insulate herself with strong margins in New York City, and Zeldin catches fire in Upstate and on Long Island, culminating in an upset victory.
In the Trump era, New York City has carried its’ weight at the statewide level, accounting for roughly 35% of the State’s vote in the last three statewide races (2020 Presidential, 2018 Governor, 2016 Presidential). However, those numbers obscure the fact that pre-2016 amidst two midterm cycles unfavorable to national Democrats, voter turnout in New York City was lower, making up just 26.6% and 29.3% of the State’s total vote in 2014 and 2010, respectively.
Borough-wide turnout levels are also key. Increasing voter participation in Manhattan and the Bronx would benefit Hochul tremendously, while a Staten Island surge due to the contested NY11 Congressional seat, will almost assuredly aid Zeldin’s efforts to pump up his Richmond County numbers. Thus far, Early Voting totals in Staten Island and the Bronx are nearly identical, which is a discouraging sign for Hochul. However, sky high voter participation in Manhattan - compared to the rest of the City - is a boon to the Governor’s re-election prospects.
Most importantly, New York City is currently on pace to produce approximately 35% of the statewide vote total. If that figure holds, Zeldin is finished.
Yet, voter participation should not be the only concern for Democrats. Over the past three Mayoral and two Presidential races, Republicans have steadily gained ground in the outer boroughs, particularly with Latino, Asian, and White voters - constituencies where Hochul could be vulnerable to Zeldin’s crime-centered messaging.
Thus far, polling data has reinforced this current, as crime was far and away the most urgent issue for NYC respondents in both the Quinnipiac and Slingshot Strategy polls. Similarly, in the aforementioned SurveyUSA poll, crime was the #1 issue for both Black and Latino voters, while in the recent Emerson survey, it was second behind the Economy. In turn, Zeldin has been gaining ground with both Latino voters and New York City residents as a whole, surpassing the coveted thirty-percent threshold in multiple recent surveys.
While it is wise to not read too keenly into polling cross tabs, past voting data is emblematic of this fissure as well. Per The New York Times interactive map, some of the largest positive shifts in Donald Trump’s vote share from 2016 to 2020 occurred in the South/Central Bronx, Upper Manhattan, Jackson Heights, Corona, Flushing, Cypress Hills, and Coney Island. These shifts have mirrored results at the Citywide level, where Democratic Mayoral candidates like Eric Adams and Bill de Blasio have bled support in the City’s working class neighborhoods over the past eight years.
Here are three great resources on those subjects:
“Queens is More Diverse Than Ever and More Republican than 20 years Ago” (both by Matt Thomas)
For any chance of victory, Zeldin has the difficult task of continuing to build Republican support in neighborhood’s where the party is historically weak, while winning back affluent moderates who have left the GOP since 2016. Curtis Sliwa performed well with Asians and white ethnics in Northeast Queens and Southern Brooklyn, but was throughly crushed in Manhattan. The likes of Joe Lhota and Harry Wilson banked over one-quarter of the vote there, yet had no juice in outer borough communities of color. Donald Trump dominated amongst Brooklyn’s Hasidic communities, won Staten Island by double-digits, and even made small, but steady improvements in Latino neighborhoods - and still failed to break 23%. All told, Zeldin must thread the metaphorical needle, tapping into each Republican’s strength yet avoiding their most pronounced weaknesses.
Despite Zeldin being on pace to have the best finish of any Republican candidate for Governor in New York City since 2002, he will need to break at least 30% to have any chance at catching Hochul statewide.
How feasible is that metric, and should Hochul be concerned? Voter turnout - and where - will play the deciding factor.
Let’s examine what it would take by forecasting five scenarios:
Between the 2016 and 2020 Presidential Elections, Donald Trump’s vote share in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens increased by 2.28%, 4.33% and 4.79% respectively. In this scenario, we model Zeldin’s 2022 borough-wide results as (Trump’s 2020 vote share + increases from 2016) - meant to capture modest Zeldin gains in Southern Brooklyn, Maspeth/Glendale, and Northeast Queens - while adjusting turnout to 2014 levels - another lousy midterm year for Democrats which featured a Staten Island Congressional race. Even if Zeldin climbs in Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens - a sub 15% showing in Manhattan will doom him.
With only limited improvements beyond Trump in this scenario, there is no path for Zeldin - barring a cataclysmic meltdown for Hochul in the rest of the State.
The period between last year’s primary and general election was a de-facto transition period for Eric Adams, who held few rallies and campaign events heading into his clash against Curtis Sliwa. Despite winning the primary off the strength of working class voters, Adams (compared to his predecessor, Bill de Blasio) ceded ground to his Republican opponent with Latinos and Asians in the Bronx and Queens - underperforming amidst low voter turnout.
To replicate somewhat similar electoral conditions, I computed Hochul’s vote share as -2% per borough compared to Adams, to reflect the Mayor’s strong network within the City’s Black communities. Additionally, I have amended the ratio of voter turnout to reflect the 2022 Early Voting period, and how ballots have been cast thus far. Higher turnout amongst Manhattan liberals has been a boon to the Hochul campaign, but the NY11 Congressional race coupled with a motivated Richmond County electorate could see Staten Island nullify any advantage the Governor has in the Bronx.
Even if Hochul cannot replicate Adams’ mediocre showing, Zeldin is still held under the thirty-percent threshold.
The more Republican-friendly version of the first scenario, which sees Zeldin receive a uniform 5% bump across the board, adjusted for Early Voting turnout through Thursday. Whether Manhattan’s share of the Citywide vote continues to exceed 30% - or if it dips back towards 25% - will determine Zeldin’s chances.
If New York County continues to lead the charge, the Zeldin campaign is imperiled - hence why Kathy Hochul - who held a Manhattan rally yesterday alongside Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris - is pulling out all the stops to re-invigorate the electorate as the race enters the homestretch.
As New York’s junior Senator for eight years, Hillary Clinton’s downstate network was thoroughly cultivated by the time of her 2016 Presidential run. While Clinton crushed Trump throughout the City, her most pronounced struggles came with outer borough white ethnics, many of whom were registered Democrats who sidestepped her in both the primary and general elections. From Bensonhurst to Woodlawn, Zeldin could find success activating this portion of the electorate (think Tom Suozzi primary voters). Yet, even with a ten point swing in four of the five boroughs - coupled with a turnout model, 2010, that fits a Republican backlash year - Hochul still banks over seventy-one percent of the Citywide vote.
We have now reviewed four scenarios, all with varying degrees of turnout and vote share between the two candidates - yet the net outcomes have all been uniform: Even with a double-digit advantage in the rest of the State, Zeldin cannot win without making a dent in New York City.
This was my attempt at a “best-case scenario” for the Zeldin campaign. Here, I went through every Assembly District from the Mayoral Primaries in ’13, ’17, and ’21 - copying the best performances of Lhota, Malliotakis, and Sliwa - sans any of their weaknesses - then totaling them up for Zeldin. Essentially, that would mean Zeldin picks up Malliotakis’ margins in Staten Island and Southern Brooklyn, mirrors Lhota’s performance on the Upper East Side and other elite enclaves, in addition to replicating Sliwa’s strength in north Queens and the Throggs Neck peninsula.
This scenario is not designed to be realistic - it is considerably more likely this does NOT happen, than it does - however, it is meant to illustrate that even if Zeldin builds out his coalition, he barely breaks 1/3 of the Citywide vote.
To underscore just how difficult a Zeldin statewide upset would be, this is the only scenario of my five where he has a path to victory - and even then he would need startlingly low turnout in New York City coupled with a fourteen point advantage throughout the rest of the state. It can be done, but the math is not working in his favor.
Primarily, this scenario will not come to fruition because the days of Republicans winning over 25% of the Manhattan vote are over, the result of a more polarized electorate, and the candidates who match it. Zeldin cannot seriously claim to be above this partisanship, in the mold of a Larry Hogan or Charlie Baker, and he will pay the price in Manhattan, Brownstone Brooklyn and Western Queens.
Ultimately, herein lies a fallacy for Democrats: if Zeldin steadily peels off support from Latinos, Asians and working class white voters - so long as Hochul’s margins remain high, buoyed by a strong performance in upper-class, civically-active neighborhoods - little attention will be paid to the fragmenting of the City’s Democratic coalition.
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