ALBANY — While Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin spent millions of dollars on ads that hammered away at crime and inflation, political experts said his path to victory still was unforgivingly narrow to overcome the more than 2:1 Democratic enrollment advantage in New York state.
Zeldin would have had to win 35% of the New York City vote, would have to nearly sweep upstate, and would have to win Long Island by a huge margin with a historic turnout, they said.
In the end, Zeldin attracted 47% of the vote to Hochul’s 52% statewide in the closest race for governor in decades. He conceded the race Wednesday afternoon and congratulated Hochul.
Zeldin came up short in trying to blunt the New York City Democratic vote with 30.2% against Hochul’s 69.5%. He lost the critical Erie County vote to Hochul 52% to 46% in her home county and although Long Island gave Zeldin a win, it wasn’t with the historic proportions he needed. He won Nassau County 55% to 44% and Suffolk County 58% to 41%.
Hochul also broke up Zeldin’s plan to sweep upstate by winning Monroe, Onondaga, Albany and Tompkins counties and narrowly winning Schenectady County, the home county of her running mate Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado. Zeldin also lost 57% to 43% in Westchester County, a blow to his plan to sweep the suburbs.
Ultimately, Zeldin's hard-line views, such as opposing abortion rights and gun control and his allegiance to former Republican President Donald Trump, sunk him in the general election, several political scientists and Republican strategists said.
“The Trump factor hurt Zeldin and many other Republican candidates across the country,” said Kevin Madden, a former top aide in the 2012 campaign of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “It’s just very hard for Republicans who need to win suburban areas and crossover votes to separate themselves from the Trump factor.”
After winning the Republican primary this summer as a strong Trump ally, Zeldin tried to avoid talking about Trump and his supporters, many of whom still deny that Trump lost the 2020 presidential election. Last month, a day after Trump gave his “complete & total endorsement,” Zeldin told reporters it wasn’t newsworthy.
“I heard from some Democrats that they would consider voting for a Republican, but not one associated with Trump,” said Michael Balboni, a Republican strategist and former state senator from Nassau County.
Zeldin had promised a historic upset like the 1994 win by Republican George Pataki over Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo. But Pataki was a more moderate, pro-choice Republican in an era with a narrower divide between Democrats and Republicans.
“The factors were abortion and Trump,” Pataki told Newsday. “A lot of moderates and independents just couldn’t pull the Republican lever when Trump is such a prominent part of the party.”
Political scientist Douglas Muzzio of Baruch College isn’t sure Zeldin ever really had a chance to win.
“Zeldin did about as well as possible for a Republican running statewide in today’s political environment,” Muzzio said. Too many voters saw Zeldin as “an election-denying, anti-abortion Trump protégé,” but without those views he probably wouldn’t have won the GOP nomination, Muzzio said.
“Zeldin wouldn’t be Zeldin if he were more moderate, and he wouldn’t win,” Muzzio said.
Hochul tagged Zeldin as an extremist to energize Democrats in the closing days of the campaign. She brought in star power of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Kamala Harris, former President Bill Clinton, President Joe Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a national progressive leader.
Zeldin’s star power came from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, both polarizing figures aligned with Trump.
“They were not New York heavy hitters,” said Lee Miringoff, a political scientist and pollster at Marist College.
“Zeldin was going for the jugular, but doing that with a MAGA support, which is not the way in New York that you build a winning coalition,” Miringoff said.
But there were also more subtle missteps in the Zeldin campaign.
Zeldin failed to land the Independence Party line, which could have attracted more disaffected Democrats and independent voters. The state Board of Elections ruled in July that 13,000 of the 45,000 signatures he needed were photocopies of signatures, which made them invalid.
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and a longtime political commentator, said Zeldin didn’t really stand a chance of winning. The key factors: Zeldin’s stand against abortion and gun control as well as Hochul’s upstate roots and historic run as the state’s first female governor, Levy said.
“He basically squeezed as much out of the sponge as he could where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2:1,” Levy said. “The chance of replicating the Pataki model was a fantasy.”