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Trump backs Lee Zeldin for New York governor, and Democrats pounce

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Lee Zeldin

Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rep. Lee Zeldin, speaks to members of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.

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Republicans backing Republicans at election time usually fail to generate much excitement – unless the endorsement stems from the top Republican of them all.

Former President Donald J. Trump granted his support late Sunday to Lee Zeldin, the Suffolk County congressman some say is gaining ground on Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul in the contest for governor of New York. Trump, whose nod is usually coveted by Republicans locked in tight primary battles or in deep red political turf, made it clear on his Truth Social website that Zeldin is his choice.

“Lee Zeldin is a WINNER who GOT THINGS DONE,” Trump wrote. “He will be a GREAT governor of New York, and has my Complete & Total Endorsement. GOOD LUCK LEE!"

But the announcement comes long after Zeldin waged a fierce battle against three opponents in the June GOP primary, when it might have proved invaluable among the Republican faithful. Now the question is whether the former president's backing carries much weight in uber-Democratic New York, and whether Trump has handed Democrats a potent new line of attack.

Indeed, when asked for comment about receiving Trump's approval, the Zeldin campaign issued a statement never mentioning the former president's name.

"Congressman Zeldin is honored to have the support of New Yorkers from all walks of life – Republicans, Independents and Democrats alike," a spokeswoman said. "They're sick and tired of the attacks on our wallets, safety, kids' education and more, and they know it's going to take a new generation of leadership to get the job done."

But Democrats were pouncing. The Hochul campaign pointed to a text exchange obtained from the January 6 Committee, outlining Zeldin's opinion in two memos to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows seeking to discredit the 2020 election results before they were even announced.

"Lee Zeldin's aspirations to be Donald Trump's number one ally are never ending. Zeldin’s text messages with Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows reveal that he played a central role in the former president's concerted effort to throw out the 2020 presidential election results,” said campaign spokesman Jerrel Harvey. “Zeldin’s record is already dangerous and disqualifying, and these new revelations show the extent of his involvement in pushing Donald Trump’s baseless conspiracy theories."

The Hochul campaign now appears to be stepping up its efforts to link Zeldin and Trump, who was trounced in New York by Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election and whom polls continue to show as unpopular in the state.

Still, the Zeldin camp was trumpeting at least two polls showing him creeping up on Hochul, including the significant move by RealClearPolitics to classify the race as a "tossup" after past labels of "solid Democrat" to "leaning Democrat." The respected website, which collects data from several polls, showed an aggregated 5.3% lead for the governor, down from her double-digit advantages of the summer.

"Our race was just moved to TOSS UP by @RealClearNews! We have just 24 days to go until we FIRE @KathyHochul & save our state," Zeldin tweeted over the weekend. "It’s not too late for Hochul to come out of hiding & do multiple debates with me across New York, starting immediately!"

"This is huge news," added state Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy in a Sunday fundraising letter. "We have just over 3 weeks until Election Day and Republicans are surging, but we have to keep the momentum going strong."

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