As elections move into the homestretch, a key question is: Will Donald Trump’s continued presence hurt the GOP in blue-state New York?
Rep. Lee Zeldin, the Republican candidate for governor, has linked up with the ex-president and his son in a drive to raise much-needed campaign cash — triggering Democrats to raise Zeldin’s pro-Trump voting record in Congress and his vote against certifying the 2020 election.
Zeldin, of Shirley, says Trump isn’t on the ballot in November and Democrats are overplaying the issue.
But the investigation about the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and the recent discovery of classified materials from Trump’s Florida home keep the former president in the national news when Republican candidates in New York want to steer the conversation to crime and inflation.
This is a dilemma for Republican candidates in blue states, such as New York: Embrace Trump or distance him?
Analysts said there is no denying Trump is a factor in 2022 midterm elections.
“He is a presence in elections across that country and that includes New York,” Susan Del Percio, a Republican political strategist based in New York City, told Newsday.
“Whether Republicans want to invoke Trump or not, he inserts himself into the news," Del Percio said. "In New York, when you’re an underdog, you don’t want to play [Trump] up. You want to talk about the economy, inflation and crime. But Donald Trump is louder than that and he also serves as a motivator on the left.”
Unlike in other states, Trump didn’t get involved in the New York GOP gubernatorial primary, which Zeldin won in June.
But Zeldin since has linked up again with the former president, who headlined a Zeldin fundraiser on Labor Day weekend.
That coincided with Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, launching an ad criticizing Zeldin for his anti-abortion rights stance and his backing of Trump’s unfounded assertions that he won the 2020 presidential election.
When Hochul's ad began airing, reporters asked her about the Zeldin-Trump fundraiser.
Hochul replied, "To the extent that my political opponent wants to be so closely associated and rely on him for the resources is troubling … but it's something that the voters I guarantee you will be taking close note of."
During a campaign stop the same day, Zeldin countered, "Kathy Hochul can air as many ads as she wants about Donald Trump and 'Orange Man bad,' but our focus is on the breaking point of the New York individual, the New York family, the New York business, the New York community that is dying right now.”
Zeldin suggested he might campaign with Trump.
A few days later, Republican State Chairman Nick Langworthy said that was unlikely.
“I don’t see that coming together,” Langworthy told Newsday. “There’s been a fundraiser, that’s what the president is doing.”
Former Gov. George Pataki, the last Republican to win a statewide election in New York, told the New York Post that "embracing Trump" was "not a winning strategy" here.
Democratic candidates for Congress in the state also have been raising the Trump issue, criticizing some Republicans opponents for failing to condemn the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and attempt to block the 2020 election certification.
Democrats also question whether Republican congressional candidates would support Trump and his agenda if he were to run for president in 2024, which Democrats say mainstream New Yorkers don't back.
Langworthy sought to downplay it all.
“He’s not in office right now,” Langworthy said of Trump.
Langworthy argued the 2022 elections will hinge on the economy and approval ratings of President Joe Biden, a Democrat.
“The current occupant of the White House is what’s up for discussion right now,” Langworthy said. “The record of [Hochul] is what’s up for discussion right now … That is why New Yorkers are going to vote based on their pocketbook.”
Political analysts said Trump will be a factor in November.
"He's a part of every conversation. He's a part of every social media post. He's all over the news," Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf told Newsday.
Unlike in conservative red states, in New York Trump, "takes away the advantage Republicans had based on economics," Sheinkopf said.
“Trump is resonating now,” said Bruce Gyory, a former adviser to two Democratic governors. “He’s been active. He’s been endorsing candidates.”
In Republican primaries and Republican-controlled states, an affiliation with Trump has helped candidates. Many even tout it.
But in New York, Trump has overwhelmingly negative ratings: 63% of New Yorkers had an unfavorable view of him compared with 32% favorable, according to a Siena College survey in August.
So it’s no surprise Democrats are focusing on the Trump factor as a way to drive up voter turnout statewide in November, Gyory said. But in local congressional and state legislative districts, candidates might play it differently.
For instance, in some very Republican upstate districts, Democratic candidates aren't really bringing up Trump. In downstate districts, they are.
“It’s very tricky waters for local candidates,” Gyory said.