Congressman Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1) speaks at a press conference...

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1) speaks at a press conference in Manorville on Jan. 25. Credit: Randee Daddona

WASHINGTON — Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin said Tuesday he’s testing the waters for a campaign for governor next year as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo faces a state investigation into sexual harassment accusations and a federal probe over his handling of the pandemic.

Zeldin, a fourth-term congressman from Shirley, said he will begin calling Republican party leaders, including county and borough chairs as well as current and former elected officials and others, to assess the prospects of a race. Cuomo has said he intends to run for a fourth term.

"After a lot of people reached out to me in recent days and weeks and after discussing it at length with my wife and daughters, I am now actively exploring a run for governor of New York against Andrew Cuomo in 2022," Zeldin said in a phone interview.

"I feel like we have a need to save our state, that we have to work together to protect our freedoms, our wallets and our safety — and it doesn't matter whether you are a Republican, a Democrat or an independent," Zeldin said.

Zeldin, who is among a handful of Republicans mentioned as potential candidates for governor, faces an uphill battle in a state that has become so strongly Democratic that no Republican has won statewide office since 2002, when Gov. George Pataki won a third term.

As Zeldin weighs taking on Cuomo, his staunch support for former President Donald Trump looms large as a factor, especially to Democratic voters in New York City.

Zeldin has allied himself with the conservative Freedom Caucus in the House and voted for objections to President Joe Biden’s certified electoral votes after Trump supporters’ rioted at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

"I believe that New Yorkers are focused on our state's economy, and they are focused on our public safety. They want to see an Albany that is that is passing policies that promote job growth here as opposed to job exportation elsewhere," Zeldin said when asked about Trump.

Zeldin added that one assessment found him to be the 12th most bipartisan member of the House and ticked off his bipartisan achievements: getting the Plum Island sale reversed, coronavirus legislative responses and the $2 billion Brooklyn National Lab Electron-Ion collider.

Nick Langworthy, chairman of the New York Republican State Committee, said in a phone interview he’s very pleased to hear Zeldin’s announcement.

"He’s certainly got a track record that I think many voters across the state would find very attractive," Langworthy said.

He said he expects about a half dozen hopefuls to step up. They could include Rep. Tom Reed (R-Corning) and Rep. Elise Stefanie (R-Schuylerville).

Republicans see a chance to win back the governor’s seat for the first time in two decades against a weakened Cuomo, who is facing the worst crisis of his political career.

New York State Conservative Party Chairman Jerry Krassar said he’s encouraged Zeldin to run at this time but hasn’t endorsed anyone. "The governor has given the GOP and the Conservative Party an opportunity due to his own incompetence and missteps," he said.

"A centrist Republican who could win the Orthodox Jewish vote in New York in a race against Cuomo would be a serious person. They'd have to be moderate on issues," said Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said.

"They’d have to walk away from Trump," he said. "Trump is the not-so ‘silent assassin’ that Zeldin has to be aware of."

Zeldin said he enjoys being a congressman, is moving up in seniority and expects to win next year when Republicans likely will take back the House – and he will run only if he believes he can win: "There's nothing motivating to me about a second-place finish."

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