Rep. Lee Zeldin, center, conducts a news conference in the...

Rep. Lee Zeldin, center, conducts a news conference in the Senate subway before the continuation of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Jan. 24, 2020. Credit: CQ Roll Call / Tom Williams via AP

WASHINGTON — Rep. Lee Zeldin, the front-runner to be the Republican nominee for New York governor, acknowledged in a Newsday interview last week that Joe Biden won the presidency and said he won’t call the election "illegitimate," even though he sought to overturn it.

Zeldin edged away from former President Donald Trump in the interview in the Capitol Wednesday just hours after he voted to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from the House Republican leadership for her repeated denunciations of Trump's election claims.

With an early start, Zeldin leads with what he says is a $2.5 million campaign account and backing by more than half the GOP county chairs. And the election of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) Friday to replace Cheney as House Republican conference chair eliminated a potential rival.

But he still faces competition. Rob Astorino, the 2014 Republican candidate against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, announced Tuesday that he’s running again. Astorino twice was elected as county executive of Westchester, which voted more than two-to-one for Biden over Trump.

Political consultants in both parties warn that Zeldin’s staunch support for Trump and his outspoken defense of him during the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, two impeachment trials and the bid to overturn the presidential election potentially loom as a liability in the 2022 general election.

And despite a testy exchange in March with two Politico reporters in which he said "yes" when asked if Democrat Biden won the election, some consultants said they were still not sure exactly where he stands on that question.

Asked by Newsday if the 2020 election was fair, Zeldin gave a nuanced answer.

"So, you had tens of millions of people that came out and voted for each of the candidates. Their votes were counted. They're counted once, and you ended up with an outcome," Zeldin said. "And that's how President Trump, uh … President Biden became the president, was by winning the November 2020 election."

Asked who is right — Cheney who defended the election’s legitimacy and called Trump a "liar" for denying it, or Trump who has undermined the election’s legitimacy by calling it a "fraud," — Zeldin said, "I believe that there are opinions that both have expressed that I would not subscribe to."

Pressed further on whether he thought the election was legitimate, Zeldin focused on the damaging impact of calling an election illegitimate.

"I believe in our country and the sanctity of our process, and I'm not going to participate in calling elections illegitimate ever," he said. "This isn’t a Third World country, and it will tear our country apart if we end up living our lives and calling elections in the past illegitimate."

He defended his own support for Trump’s efforts to undercut Biden’s election.

"Anybody who wants to describe the 2020 election as being perfect, and free of error — I actually have never seen any federal election ever that actually meets those standards," said Zeldin, who pointed to ballots being thrown out in his own election as an example.

That’s an issue that both sides should be discussing, he said. But he also faulted his own party for "theories" that the Dominion Voting System rigged its vote counting to help Biden — leading to several Dominion lawsuits against those spreading the theories.

Zeldin defended his challenges to Biden’s victory in legal terms rather than as expressions of support for Trump.

He said he signed on to a lawsuit filed by the Texas attorney general to throw out the election results in four key states — Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin — for the same reason he spoke on the House floor and voted to object to Arizona and Pennsylvania electoral votes on Jan. 6 after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in a deadly riot.

"What I spoke out on the floor was related to how the Constitution is clear that state legislatures set election law. And what took place last year was that nonstate legislative actors were making their own changes to how elections needed to be administered," he said.

Zeldin voted against Cheney in February when she survived an attempt to remove her and again on Wednesday, but he denied it was solely because of her outspoken challenges to Trump’s domination of the Republican Party.

"If you're the conference chair, it's not all about you," Zeldin said. He faulted her for "making calls" without "communicating and consulting with the conference." That, he said, "ends up building up frustration and resentment within the conference."

Looking ahead to a 2022 campaign against a weakened Cuomo, Zeldin spoke of avoiding purges of Republican voters and instead growing the party based on the increased turnout nationally for Trump in last year’s presidential election.

But so far, Zeldin said, he has not come across questions about Trump as he meets with Republican and Conservative party county chairs and their voters.

"That is not coming up anywhere close to how much people want to talk about the cost of living, public safety, education, the governor’s corruption scandals and more," he said.

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