ALBANY, N.Y. — Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin’s 14-month-long campaign for governor of New York has been defined by his associations.
His Democratic critics attack him for a long record of being publicly chummy with former President Donald Trump since 2016. His Republican primary opponents say he wasn’t consistently close enough — and that he was actually former Democratic Gov. Andrew “Cuomo’s favorite Republican” due to his votes as a state senator in Albany.
On Tuesday, the impact or irrelevance of his associations with one or both of New York’s recently scandal-scarred sons could reveal itself in the winner of the four-way Republican primary, which Zeldin and state party officials maintain he is primed to clinch.
In an interview, the four-term congressman brushed off a recent Siena College poll showing Andrew Giuliani — a former Trump aide and son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani who has never held elected office and has little more than $300,000 in his campaign account — is viewed more favorably by Republicans than him.
He wouldn’t have jumped into the race at all, Zeldin said, if he didn’t have a detailed roadmap to victory on Election Day.
“When we got to the point where I was announcing on April, 8 2021, my team and I, we had already planned from victory backwards,” he said. “We had aspects of the campaign plan for Nov. 7 and Nov. 8 of 2022.”
Zeldin purports his playbook hasn’t changed much despite the fact the circumstances have: Few were expecting a four-way primary — which now includes Giuliani, businessman Harry Wilson and former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino — after a whopping 85 percent of local party leadership backed Zeldin as their candidate last June.
The Republicans were expecting their candidate to face Cuomo, not Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is running for reelection after she took over when Cuomo resigned in August amid sexual harassment allegations. Hochul is now cruising toward likely victory in the Democratic primary, also being held on Tuesday.
“We thought through this race from 100,000 different dimensions and — it’s in our TV ads. I’ve said it during rallies,” Zeldin said. “I feel it personally even when I don’t express it publicly: I’m all in; losing this race is not an option. I believe that winning this race for us is the only option, and every day that goes by I am more confident in the plan.”
The pre-Trump years
The Cuomo fracas and a hasty transfer of power largely overshadowed Zeldin’s early campaign headlines last year. Zeldin became the presumed GOP candidate for governor shortly after his most headline-grabbing act in Congress: taking to the House floor after the insurrection at the Capitol Jan. 6, 2021, to object to the certification of the 2020 presidential election results.
The declarations that day were shocking for some, but Zeldin’s was not necessarily surprising. He spent the Trump years showering support on the former president, quickly endorsing him in 2016 as he became the Republican nominee; defending Trump’s “both sides” comments on the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 and emerging as one of the most vocal critics in Congress of the impeachment probe.
Zeldin’s political career started long before Trump became the metric for the Republican Party. Sometime around 10th grade, Zeldin, now 42, said he joined the Youth in Government club at Mastic Beach’s William Floyd High School, initially for similar reasons that he joined the chorus despite scant vocal talent, he said. “I did both to pick up girls.”
He soon became legitimately interested in the legislative process — perhaps a detriment to his first goal — and later interned in former state Sen. Ken LaValle’s office and became president of the College Republicans at SUNY Albany. He graduated from Albany Law School at the young age of 23, but said his initial foray into the political world had already turned him off.
His solution was to enlist in the Army. He served four years on active duty, including a tour in Iraq in summer 2006. He transitioned to reserve duty in 2007 after his twin daughters were born prematurely with a slew of health complications that several times threatened their lives.
“Something went off inside,” he said. “I decided I wanted to run for Congress. Somehow, somewhere along the way, in the seven years of life experience and reading and reflecting, studying leadership, the military, I knew I would be able to survive in politics and stay true to who I am.”
He was elected to the state Senate in 2010 and to Congress in 2014. He quickly became an energetic voice on foriegn affairs and built support in the delegation, stoking rumors that he had even higher office in mind. But he insists that a gubernatorial run wasn’t on his radar until Conservative Party Chair Gerard Kassar asked him to meet at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington in January 2020.
Zeldin seemed surprised when he floated the idea, Kassar said in an interview, but promised to consider it after his reelection to the House later that year. He returned to Kassar after Election Day with his plan drawn up.
Conservative party county leaders, like Republicans, quickly rallied around his campaign with the goal of an early and united front to take back the executive mansion. He easily won the GOP nomination at its convention in March.
Kassar is confident in the outreach Zeldin’s done since then — statewide and specifically within his Long Island homebase, a key battleground. And with virtually the entire GOP party infrastructure working on Zeldin’s behalf, Kassar is skeptical that recent polling of registered voters indicates who will actually vote — and how — in what’s likely to be a low-turnout primary on Tuesday.
“I’m definitely not picking up for the Conservative Party that we are in any danger of our candidate losing,” Kassar said.
The testy GOP primary has become “a distraction” and drained funds as the candidates attacked one another, Kassar said. Zeldin has more money and a larger, national fundraising pool than many Republican candidates for governor in previous years. But should he win the primary, the roughly $2 million he currently has in the bank would be no match for Hochul’s almost $13 million, which currently is on the lower end of her reported balances due to a flurry of pre-primary spending.
“The thing here is that, to win, it’s going to take Lee raising another $14, $15, $16 million,” Kassar said. “But I believe that he can.”
An eye toward November
In addition to money, winning the primary would also pose the difficult task of rallying the entirety of the state GOP base, plus some Democrats and independent voters, to support him in the general election this fall.
Zeldin plays to the conservative Republican crowd, to be sure, with rousing celebrations of gun ownership, vows to eliminate Covid-era mandates and disgust for a New York bail system that he thinks allows “criminals to commit crimes and be home for dinner.” His anti-abortion rights stance leans on his daughters’ survivals as one-pound infants despite doctors’ suggestions the parents could “let them go.”
“They’re finishing 10th grade, they’re turning 16, they’re in honors classes getting better grades I did when I was their age,” he said Tuesday during one of three recent primary debates. “Thank God they had the ability to be born to survive and thrive.”
During the debates, Zeldin has been the attacker. He’s knocked his opponent Harry Wilson as a “Never-Trumper” for writing in former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley for president rather than Trump in 2020. Like Trump, he’s made up names for his foes and likes to poke them, noting how “Rolex Rob” Astorino has lost three elections in a row and how Andrew Giuliani was mocked on Saturday Night Live as a kid at his father’s side.
When asked about the 2020 elections, he has a ready answer for his then-objections, but it’s neither simple nor clear what he believes. At the time Zeldin cited “evidence-filled issues” with how the elections were run by officials in various states. Zeldin today explains the vote as one that questioned pandemic-era changes to election administration by non-state legislative actors, specifically in Pennsylvania and Arizona.
When asked if he’s now satisfied with the results, after legal inquiries into fraud found no evidence of the claims, he said he viewed the continued conspiracies as falling in a sort of gray area between two extremes.
“It was neither the first perfect election in the history of the country without any fraud whatsoever,” he said. “And it also wasn’t an election where any allegation at all that any anonymous person threw onto their social media page was accurately declared as true.”
Joe Biden is president, he’s said, but his victory hasn’t always been an easy admittance.
Zeldin hasn’t gotten an endorsement from the former president he’d long supported, and it’s still unclear if Trump will officially weigh into the primary, though Giuliani has been supported by Trump’s friends and held a fundraiser on Trump golf course in New Jersey. Zeldin declined to comment on whether he expected Trump to endorse, saying, “I don’t want to say anything that would be interpreted as speaking for him.”
It’s possible that the absence of a Trump endorsement could ultimately work in his favor in a general election to draw anti-Trump voters who are otherwise uninterested in voting for a Democrat. But it may be that a Republican pitch this November won’t center around the former president as much as many expect, said New York City Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli, who has been a strong Zeldin supporter.
This year, the party messaging is particularly salient, he said, urging a focus on crime and the economy.
“He’s a Republican running in a traditionally Democratic state,” Borelli said. “But we’ve seen that people will essentially vote outside their party lines when there’s larger things at stake.”
Appealing to New York voters
Zeldin seems eager to widen his appeal to a broader base. When asked in the interview whether he’d always had gubernatorial ambitions, he chose to compliment Hillary Clinton, who as a senator had a reputation among members of both parties for showing up to every event, no matter how small, fully prepared and engaged, he said.
“There is a lot that I strongly disagree with with Hillary Clinton, but there’s one thing that I noticed when she became the senator in New York that I thought was correct,” Zeldin said. “She was focused on one thing and one thing only, and that was to be the best U.S. senator she could be at the time.”
He later brought up Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as an example of an individual who appears to truly act on his convictions.
“I disagree with Bernie Sanders on what feels like just about everything,” Zeldin said. “However, I respect the fact that he actually believes what he’s fighting for.”
That kind of rhetoric doesn’t vibe with how Republican loyalties should look, according to Giuliani, who described himself Tuesday night as “the only person on this stage that always supported President Donald J. Trump and didn’t call them other kinds of names.”
Giuliani on Monday unearthed a video of Zeldin referring to some of Trump’s comments as racist.
“Unfortunately, he’s going to flip and flop,” Giuliani said of Zeldin during the debate. “You were with Trump before you were against him. You’re against him before that. I can’t even tell; you can’t even get it straight.”
As the debate concluded, the candidates were asked by Newsmax host Eric Bolling: “How would you describe yourself politically, on a scale from, Pence to Trump?”
The question drew chortles from the Rochester crowd and some candidates themselves. Wilson described himself as “a limited government conservative in all respects.” Astorino noted he “was on CNN defending Donald Trump for two and a half years.” Giuliani just repeated his own last name alongside Trump’s.
Zeldin didn’t repeat either surname aloud.
“No matter what the two names are that you mentioned, it’s important to always be my own man,” he said.
A day later, Zeldin received Pence’s endorsement.