ALBANY — Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul defeated Republican Lee Zeldin in a close race Tuesday, making history as the first woman elected governor in New York.
The Associated Press declared Hochul the winner shortly before 1 a.m. as she led by about 300,000 votes with almost 90% of election districts reporting. The Democrat herself declared victory earlier, saying on Twitter: “Breaking: I’m deeply honored to be elected Governor of the State of New York.”
Zeldin conceded the race on Wednesday afternoon.
Hochul, 64, became New York’s first woman governor last year when Andrew M. Cuomo resigned amid sexual harassment allegations. This year, she was running to be the first woman elected to the job. In succeeding, she overcame a shaky stretch run that saw her lead over her conservative opponent dwindle in the polls.
"Tonight you made your voices heard loud and clear and you made me the first woman ever elected to be the governor of the state of New York,” Hochul told a cheering crowd at a Manhattan victory party. "The lessons of tonight's victory are that, given the choice, New Yorkers refuse to go backward on our march toward progress."
She credited organized labor with helping her “bring it home.”
This was the closest New York governor's race since 1994.
Zeldin, 42, a four-term congressman from Shirley, was trying to end a decadeslong GOP losing streak and become the first Republican governor since George Pataki, who served from 1995-2006.
Zeldin initially declined to concede. Taking the stage shortly after Fox News called the race for Hochul, Zeldin told supporters: “There are still 1.4 million Election Day votes that are out … Over the course of the next few hours, you are going to see the race get closer and closer and closer.”
Even with 1.4 million votes to count at the time he made the statement, Zeldin would have had to win almost two-thirds of them to overcome his deficit, according to state Board of Elections totals.
Hochul’s huge lead in the race — 17 points just after Labor Day — became tenuous in the final weeks as Zeldin sought to downplay his support of former President Donald Trump and strict limits on abortion rights and instead tap into voters’ fears about crime.
As a result, Hochul and Zeldin were headed for the closest gubernatorial election since 1994, when Pataki ousted Democrat Mario Cuomo. And they were dueling in a campaign in which national issues — and national headwinds favoring Republicans — took center stage.
Hochul became New York’s first woman governor in August 2021 when she ascended from lieutenant governor. She cast herself as a fresh face with a new, more collaborative approach as she delivered, during her tenure, record school aid and a secretive, taxpayer-backed deal to finance a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills to keep them from moving.
But she faced a stiff challenge in converting her unexpected rise into an electoral victory.
Despite being on the job for a year, she’d never become as well-known as Andrew M. Cuomo. She had served as Cuomo’s lieutenant governor since 2015 but had stayed in the shadows, often filling ceremonial duties.
Zeldin, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, has served four terms in Congress, representing the eastern end of Long Island.
A vocal Trump supporter, Zeldin during the campaign sought to downplay his ties to the ex-president as non-news. Though Zeldin held a closed-door fundraiser with Trump, he didn’t appear with him at any public events.
He also sought to downplay his support for strict limits on abortion rights, saying a Democratic-dominated State Legislature would never overturn New York’s abortion law.
At the same time, he focused relentlessly on crime.
Zeldin promised to repeal New York’s 2019 bail law — which made most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies not subject to bail — the keystone of his campaign.
He regularly flocked to crime scenes and held news conferences to play up the issue, even though state data shows no clear link between the bail law and crime rates. He also decried “one party rule in Albany,” a reference to Democrats controlling the executive office as well as the state Assembly and Senate.
Rates of violent crime have broadly increased around the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic, even in states with stricter bail laws. But the bail overhaul was something Republicans used effectively in 2021 local elections around New York, prompting them to go back to it again and again this year.
As a campaigner, Hochul relied on Democrats’ 2-1 enrollment advantage in the state and a $50 million campaign chest that flooded television and the internet with ads.
Most of those ads attacked Zeldin’s potential negatives with New Yorkers — especially on abortion and his vote in Congress to overturn the 2020 presidential election, which Trump lost.
The Hochul campaign tagged Zeldin as too “extreme and dangerous” for New York.
The strategy seemed sound: After all, New York is a state that gave Democrat Joe Biden a 23-point victory over Trump in 2020 and where support for abortion rights remains strong across party and demographic categories.
Hochul also played up Zeldin’s opposition to a ban on assault weapons and to limits on the right to carry a concealed weapon — calling him not serious on crime if he favored no crackdown on guns.
The Democrat enjoyed a 17-percentage point lead in a Siena College survey just after Labor Day — but then seemed to coast, strategists said, as Zeldin hyped crime and gained momentum.
By the end of October, an Emerson College poll put Hochul’s lead at six.
With Matthew Chayes.