For the first time in at least 50 years, Republicans are running a slate of statewide candidates who all are from New York City and its suburbs.

The strategy: Try to win enough votes in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and in pockets of New York City, to take their first statewide race since George Pataki was governor.

At their state convention in Garden City on Feb. 28 and March 1, Republicans nominated Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) for governor; NYPD veteran Alison Esposito for lieutenant governor; Michael Henry, a commercial litigator from Astoria, Queens, for state attorney general; and Paul Rodriguez, a Wall Street veteran from Queens, for state comptroller.

Political experts and party strategists told Newsday that the list of top Republican candidates highlights a novel and possibly risky calculation — that traditional GOP voters upstate will turn out, and that there will be enough conservative voters downstate to put Republicans over the top in some key state races.

Gerald Benjamin, emeritus professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz, said he wasn't surprised by the Republicans' choice of statewide candidates this year.

Republicans "know their upstate base is very solid," Benjamin told Newsday.

"Geography matters to the Republicans because they want to win and are seizing the opportunity on Long Island and some parts of NYC," Benjamin said. "They want to maximize the upstate vote and select someone downstaters know."

Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for governor of New York,...

Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for governor of New York, with GOP lieutenant governor candidate Alison Esposito at the party's convention in Garden City. Credit: Reece T. Williams

Lisa Parshall, a political-science professor at Daemen College in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, said the 2022 elections may represent, "one of the most reasonable shots the Republicans will have in a long time."

Parshall called it "a bit of a role reversal" with the state Democratic Committee, which has chosen incumbent Kathy Hochul, a Buffalo native with deep roots in Western New York, as its gubernatorial candidate.

But if there's a credible path to victory for Republicans, "it’s going to run right through the suburbs," Parshall said.

"Nassau and Suffolk counties — some of those areas have the sensibilities of small towns," Parshall said. "They vote their personal and financial security."

GOP officials and political experts cite the results of the 2021 elections on Long Island as a reason for the party's optimism about its chances downstate.

Republicans knocked out Democratic Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, won the district attorney races in Nassau and Suffolk and took control of the Suffolk County Legislature.

But Republicans have a lot of ground to make up.

There are only 2.6 million registered Republicans in New York State, compared with 5.9 million Democrats and 2.7 million voters not affiliated with a political party.

The last time a candidate of theirs won a statewide office was in 2002, when Pataki, a moderate from Peekskill who grew up on his family's farm, was elected to a third term.

University at Buffalo assistant professor of political science Shawn Donahue noted that no Republican running for governor has ever come within single-digit margins of a Democrat since Pataki was governor.

Also, Hochul is likely to perform better with upstate voters than the average Democrat, particularly in the more urban counties, Donahue said.

"One of the questions is whether things are so polarized in the country and in the state that where you come from matters a little less than before," Donahue said.

"It could matter along the margins," he said, referring to voters in the general election who are unaffiliated with either party.

GOP officials say they expect to do well on Staten Island, and hope to attract conservative-leaning immigrants in Queens and Brooklyn by stressing issues such as public safety, and the party's opposition to the end of cash bail.

But in the general election, former President Donald Trump remains a drag on the GOP brand, particularly in New York City, Donahue and other experts said.

As a member of Congress, Zeldin was a vocal Trump defender during the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and two impeachment trials.

Zeldin also voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021, hours after a mob of Trump supporters had stormed the House floor.

"Democrats are going to make Trump his middle name," Donahue said of Zeldin.

Jay Jacobs, chairman of the Nassau and state Democratic committees, said GOP candidates, "need to answer the questions: Do you believe Joe Biden is the legitimately elected president of the United States and were the actions of those who planned and participated in the events at our Capitol on Jan. 6 an insurrection punishable by law?"

Nonetheless, state Republicans say their core issues are resonating with voters.

Speakers at the GOP convention in Garden City argued that the end of cash bail has led to a rise in crime, New York's high cost of living is driving residents out of the state and Hochul's imposition of mask mandates led to fatigue and frustration in schools and among business owners.

Nick Langworthy, state Republican chairman, told Newsday that issues such as crime and the cost of living transcend regional boundaries.

He said the party selected a diverse candidate slate, "that looks at the state as a whole," but made no effort to exclude candidates from upstate.

"We really looked at the caliber of the candidates," said Langworthy, who is from the Buffalo area.

But he said, "we have to do better than we have in New York City, and we hope to perform even better on Long Island."

Hofstra University political science Professor Craig Burnett said regional roots count for less now than they used to.

"You can’t just be somebody from upstate and that’s it," Burnett told Newsday.

"We are far enough out in history from the deindustrialization of the state, and now it’s about who has the ideas to boost the economy and keep people here and that’s not just an upstate v. downstate thing," Burnett said.

"That’s an ideas thing," he said.

With Michael Gormley

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