New York Gov. Kathy Hochul might not be beloved, but she’s not in real political peril, right? After all, New York hasn’t had a Republican governor in 16 years. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the Empire State by a two-to-one margin. The Democratic incumbent won his last statewide race by 24 points, and every poll of the gubernatorial race finds Hochul in the lead. If all this data is a source of comfort for New York’s increasingly anxious Democrats, the governor herself is not taking it that way.
“I am the underdog in this race,” Hochul said on Friday. Hochul likes to think of herself as an “underdog.” She’s previously claimed that her default “mentality” is to assume she’s an unlikely prospect. But true underdogs who genuinely believe they are behind the eight-ball act like it. They adopt asymmetric tactics aimed at neutralizing the advantages enjoyed by the favorite. They punch up. They experiment. They take risks.
Hochul, by contrast, has turned in an extraordinarily unimaginative performance on the campaign trail—one that has been almost entirely defensive. It’s her Republican opponent, Lee Zeldin, who is running like he’s behind. And it’s working.
Complacent no longer, Democratic campaign professionals around the governor are scrambling to generate enthusiasm for Hochul in, of all places, New York City. The typical trappings of an election year have been conspicuously absent from the five boroughs, according to Politico. “Street corner volunteers and direct mail are lacking in high-turnout neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, despite $30.5 million in statewide ad buys,” their report read. In a flurry of activity, the state’s Democratic organizations and its allies, like the teachers’ unions, are dumping millions of dollars into a late advertising blitz aimed at the city’s minority population. Hochul will appear alongside New York City Mayor Eric Adams this weekend in an effort to energize the city’s moribund Democratic voters.
Republicans, too, appear to believe that Hochul is vulnerable. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is heading to Long Island this Saturday to campaign alongside Zeldin. There, the hard-edged governor will devote his energies to firing up Suffolk County’s working- and middle-class voters. Virginia’s more establishmentarian governor, Glenn Youngkin, is also making a swing through New York, but he is heading to Westchester—a high-income county in which the culture wars take a backseat to public safety and the cost of living. The Republican Governor’s Association recently sunk a half-million dollars into the statewide race in New York, and the committee’s chairman, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, even urged donors to direct their funds to Zeldin.
Both parties are committing precious resources to this contest at a time when those resources are desperately needed in races across the country. Hochul’s allies—those, at least, who are willing to speak candidly to reporters—tacitly admit that the GOP’s going to have an easier time mobilizing their voters, in part because they are not trying to change the national subject.
The Democratic campaign in this state has hammered the issue of abortion relentlessly. Hochul never misses an opportunity to remind voters that Zeldin declined as a member of Congress to vote to certify Pennsylvania and Arizona’s 2020 election results. And the overly clever consultants orbiting the Empire State’s Democratic establishment genuinely seemed to believe they could neutralize the GOP’s advantages on crime by presenting January 6 as an equivalent to rising rates of violent street crime.
If Quinnipiac University’s most recent survey of New Yorkers is accurate, the strategy worked—on Democrats. Empire State voters who identify as Democratic told pollsters that the most urgent issue facing New York State today is “protecting democracy.” Whatever you think of the legitimacy of that as a political issue, it was a risk to convince Democrats that their biggest concern is one that won’t materialize until the next election cycle and is almost exclusively a federal matter. By contrast, Republicans and independents alike cite crime as the state’s most pressing and urgent concern. That discrepancy also explains why that poll found Zeldin creeping up to within four points of his Democratic opponent.
If the Hochul campaign’s “Crazy Ivan” on crime is any indication, her vulnerability is no mirage. The governor’s political operation has adopted a prohibitive focus on crime prevention. Last week, Hochul and Adams jointly announced a plan to increase the presence of uniformed police in New York City’s subway system, and the governor’s campaign has dedicated millions of dollars in ad spending to highlight her record on crime. It may be too late. The shift in tactics concedes that crime is on the rise; contrary to some palpably bitter analyses, it is not a flawed product of the public’s impaired “perception.” And the governor’s attempt to claim that her administration has always been focused on crime is only going to leave the voters wondering why her administration has failed so spectacularly in that regard.
In the end, the Republican effort may just be a feint designed to redirect Democratic resources, or the party may just be throwing good money after bad. For a Republican to win statewide in New York, the stars have to align in ways they have not for many years. But the GOP seems to see a convergence coming, and they’re positioned to make the most of it.