Throughout New York State over the past few days, nervous Democrats have been fretting about the suddenly competitive race for governor.
Polls showed Republican Lee Zeldin steadily gaining on incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul. Viewers across the state actually tuned into the pair’s Tuesday night debate at Pace University, and national cable shows featured the fiery faceoff all day Wednesday.
As one Democrat with his finger on the pulse of the race put it: “There’s something going on out there.”
The same veteran Democrat who asked not to be identified notes that President Biden’s Thursday visit to Syracuse slated to feature Hochul celebrated landing a new Micron plant, thousands of jobs, and a nice achievement. But it also signals that the governor of one of the nation’s most Democratic states needs help.
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“That tells me they’re as worried about this as anyone,” the Dem source said. “The White House has every excuse to say we need help in Georgia, or here, or there. They’re not saying that.”
Now, both parties are reacting. Republicans seem downright giddy about their prospects, though the savvy among them note that winning in ultra-Democratic New York still represents the ultimate challenge.
New Erie County Republican Chairman Michael Kracker likes what he sees.
“We have an opportunity to not only deliver Erie County but New York State too,” he said a few days ago. “Hochul’s support in Western New York is soft, she’s never present here, and Lee Zeldin will be here often.”
Zeldin, you recall, predicted last summer he would win Erie County on Nov. 8. And if he captures such a Democratic stronghold, he might very well be the next governor of New York.
Kracker says his GOP is working hard. The party maintains headquarters in Tonawanda and West Seneca where phone calls and volunteer coordination takes place every night.
“Our people not only want Lee Zeldin to win,” he said, “they will help Lee Zeldin win.”
Former Gov. David Paterson acknowledges Zeldin’s surprising surge. Speaking to the Politics Column a few days ago, he noted Hochul’s landslide victory in the June primary at a time when Democratic reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade approached fever pitch. But in September, he said, Zeldin turned the tide as ubiquitous cellphone cameras captured a slew of high-profile crimes – especially in New York City. It began to hit home.
“I’ve learned over the years that what you see is remembered by people 60% more,” he said. “It’s graphic. And it definitely heightened the anxiety of people all over the state.”
The former governor recounted high-profile crimes occurring close even to his Manhattan home. Knifings, muggings and people shoved off subway platforms.
“Crime became a far greater issue than it had been in the primary,” Paterson said. “I think it had its run, and I think it’s over.”
Hochul has now pivoted toward the issue. Last weekend she visited five Harlem churches touting her own crime fighting efforts. Combined with what Paterson labels a strong performance in the Spectrum News debate, he thinks Hochul is rebounding in time to counteract Zeldin at his peak. Indeed, two new polls late last week showed her with a double-digit lead.
“In debates, people don’t look at someone beating up their opponent, or who’s the smartest or who’s the toughest,” he said. “You want to make people think – wow – it would be all right if this person can run the state.
“I just think the campaign message became what the people of the state were asking for,” he added. “They’re asking for real leadership.”
All of this will hinge on the numbers tabulated on Nov. 8, whether Hochul successfully motivated the state’s 3.5 million more Democrats to trek to the polls, or whether Zeldin and his anti-crime message sparked enough outrage to overcome all those Dems. Heck – the Yankees and Mets are certainly not on TV in late October. This contest offers its own late-inning entertainment.