I’m calling it now. Lee Zeldin will be the Republican nominee for governor of New York in 2022. The four-term Long Island Congressman has been racking up endorsements in his bid to unseat Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He’s been endorsed by 36 county G.O.P. chairs, including party leaders in Schoharie, Saratoga, Montgomery, Schenectady and Albany counties. Politicians once rumored to be considering their own gubernatorial runs, such as U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, the Republican nominee for governor in 2018, have also thrown their support behind him.
Now, Zeldin isn’t running unopposed. But it’s hard to take his opponents very seriously. One of them is Rob Astorino, the former Westchester County Executive who ran for governor against Cuomo in 2014 and lost by 14 points. His track record, which includes a failed 2020 bid for the New York state Senate, is weak, and the G.O.P. knows it. Also in the mix is Andrew Giuliani, the 35-year-old son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Like his father, Giuliani has ties to the Trump administration – he served as associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement – but let’s not kid ourselves. His campaign is little more than a stunt, with little to distinguish it beyond a famous family name. Finally, Lewis County Sheriff Michael Carpinelli has also announced a run for governor. But he is a virtual unknown, and faces a huge uphill battle in winning over voters across the state.
All of which is to say: Zeldin’s path to the Republican nomination for governor will be fairly easy. The difficult part will come later, when he attempts to become the first Republican elected to statewide office since former Gov. George Pataki in 2002. The question hanging over Zeldin’s candidacy is whether a Trump-supporting conservative who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election can become governor of a heavily Democratic state like New York. To win, Zeldin needs to appeal to voters beyond the state’s Republican base – to more moderate, independent voters and, yes, even some Democrats as well.
Can he do it? Cuomo is vulnerable – as vulnerable as I’ve ever seen him. He’s the subject of an impeachment inquiry, and has been under fire for months over his handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes and allegations he sexually harassed female aides. But he’s also managed to weather the storm thus far, and a recent Siena poll showed that a majority of the state’s Democrats want him to win a fourth term.
Of course, that same poll suggested that New York state Attorney General Tish James might be the stronger candidate, with more voters preferring James to an unnamed, hypothetical Republican opponent than Cuomo. However, James has said nothing about running for governor, and my early prediction is that Cuomo will run again, counting on the state’s heavily Democratic downstate voters to carry him to victory. If that happens, it will be up to Zeldin to stop him. And I’m not sure he’s up to the task.
We know what a blue state Republican governor looks like, and Zeldin doesn’t fit the mold, which is perhaps best embodied by Charlie Baker in Massachusetts or Phil Scott in Vermont. Both men are political moderates who have distanced themselves from Trump – an approach that has sometimes caused friction with their own party, while also winning over many Democrats. So far, Zeldin has shown no sign of wanting to distance himself from Trump. That’s a good strategy for winning a Republican primary, but can it work in a general election? We’ve got a long way to go before voters head to the polls in 2022. But in this polarized political climate, I’m guessing the answer is no.