Kathy Hochul’s slipping poll ratings could fuel her campaign for New York governor

ALBANY, NY — New York’s tight race for governor is sneaking up on no one.

A year ago, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of neighboring New Jersey was a contender for easy re-election. The polls showed it, and his supporters felt it. But they were wrong: he won, but only by 3 percent.

Now the close New York battle between Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul and Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin has set both parties on course for the feverish final days of the campaign. Concerns about turnout have led to a flood of funds, events and guests of honor – from Bill and Hillary Clinton to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

“If the Democrats come out, we win,” Hochul told CNN on Friday morning. “I think what’s not being captured in the polls is that there’s finally real energy on the floor. It doesn’t manifest sooner, but you just have to peak on election day.”

Polls show Hochul leading by 4 to 11 points — a narrower-than-expected margin that’s making Democrats nervous. In a recent internal Hochul poll, it rose by single digits with less than 50 percent of the vote, according to a Democratic adviser briefed on the results.

Democrats hope the polls will serve as a wake-up call to their base — whose mere enrollment puts Republicans and independents to shame combined.

In another unusual twist for deep blue New York, the money race has also intensified on the home stretch of the campaign. While Hochul has the overall fundraising lead, independent groups have pumped a remarkable $20 million through two super PACs to help Zeldin in recent weeks, campaign funding records show.

As a result, ad spending is tight, with Zeldin and his groups pouring $9.3 million into ads since Oct. 18, compared to $9 million by Hochul and her allies, according to AdImpact data. Most of the money was spent in the expensive New York media market.

“The fact that the polls are tighter than expected gives both sides a great opportunity and a great message to say to their constituents, ‘It’s close, we could win. It’s close, we could lose,’” said Steven, spokesman the Siena College poll Greenberg, who has chaired several Democratic statewide races.

The race will boil down to regional benchmarks that have long been the recipe for the New York election: Republicans must win the state, the suburbs and more than 30 percent of the vote in New York City. Democrats need to up their score in the heavily blue city and then break even or slightly ahead in the rest of the state.

Zeldin acknowledged the winning record, which has not been achieved by a statewide Republican since George Pataki won a third term as governor in 2002.

“If you get less than 30 percent in New York City, you can’t win,” Zeldin said in an interview last week. “If you get over 35 percent in New York City, it becomes very difficult to lose it, depending on what that number is north of 35 percent.”

State Democratic Party leader Jay Jacobs told reporters Tuesday that the race will increase voter turnout and help Democrats, particularly in the city.

“We have a robust field program across the state and especially in the city,” he said.

But he also warned that Hochul could face trouble in the New York City suburbs, including Zeldin’s home territory on Long Island, which has nearly 2.2 million voters — about 18 percent of the state’s total.

“We may fall short in the suburbs, but we fight hard for the suburbs,” said Jacobs, who is also the leader of the Democrats in one of Long Island’s two counties.

The Buffalo native Hochul will do better than other current gubernatorial candidates on her home turf in the backcountry, Jacobs predicts.

“She’s very popular, especially in western New York, not just in her home borough,” he said.

A fight for voters in New York City

Zeldin is making inroads into the city, where high voter turnout has buoyed nationwide Democrats for generations. Polls show Hochul continues to dominate in the five counties where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than seven to one.

An Oct. 18 poll by Quinnipiac University found it led Zeldin in the city 59 percent to 37 percent, but beat him by just 4 points overall — one of the closest public polls. A Siena College poll released the same day showed it had a much better city advantage: 70 percent to 23 percent and an 11-point overall win.

Both polls would have stunned Democrats four years ago when former Gov. Andrew Cuomo defeated Republican opponent Marc Molinaro by 84 percent to 16 percent in the city.

Zeldin fights on the fringes, hoping to win over enough voters frustrated by the party in power over crime and inflation.

He has campaigned in the city’s few GOP strongholds on Staten Island and parts of Queens, while Hochul aims to energize a base in the Democratic bastions of Brooklyn and Manhattan that her supporters fear don’t are excited. She plans a unity gathering Saturday with former President Bill Clinton in Brooklyn, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Mayor Eric Adams and Attorney General Tish James.

And President Joe Biden is expected to join her in Yonkers on Sunday to try to bolster support in the suburbs, according to The Capitol Pressroom, a public radio show. It would be Biden’s third visit to New York since early October.

“Ultimately, I think it’s about increasing voter turnout and getting people to pay attention to these elections – that they matter; they are momentous,” said state senator Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx), who chairs the Bronx Democratic Committee.

Republicans are showing “an enthusiasm we haven’t seen in four cycles,” according to City Councilman Joe Borelli, whose Staten Island district is heavily Republican. He is also working on a pro-Zeldin PAC.

Building support across New York

Borelli said Zeldin’s almost unique focus on crime appealed to voters concerned about safety on the city’s subways. He predicted that Asian and Orthodox Jewish New Yorkers would be drawn to his positions on educational issues.

Zeldin – who would be New York’s first Jewish Republican governor – has said he will not interfere in yeshivas. The private religious academies have come under increased scrutiny over allegations that many are not complying with state laws requiring adequate secular education. He has also joined many Asian voters, many of whom support keeping the entrance exam for the city’s specialized public high schools.

Orthodox Jewish areas of Brooklyn stood out for former President Donald Trump two years ago.

“People in my community usually go to the incumbent unless there’s a reason not to, and in the case of Congressman Zeldin, he’s come to our community repeatedly in the last year or so. He’s a household name,” City Councilman Kalman Yeger, a conservative Democrat who has not officially backed the race, said in an interview.

Hochul has garnered the support of several prominent Jewish leaders, but Zeldin appears to be the active community’s favorite based on endorsements.

Yeger said the excitement among Republicans in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood hasn’t been seen in two decades: “The Borough Park neighborhoods are instrumental and almost exclusively supportive of Congressman Zeldin.”

City Council member Diana Ayala, a Democrat who supports Hochul, said her constituents would vote for Hochul but were not enthusiastic about the race.

“I think the governor will do well in parts of my district, in East Harlem and the South Bronx, but I know we’ve seen a trend over the last few years where we’ve had Latino voters who are registered Democrats were changing party lines,” Ayala said in an interview.

Early voting numbers through Wednesday showed an increase on Long Island, boding well for Zeldin, Newsday reported. Turnout is also expected to be strong in parts of the backcountry where there are close house races.

The key for upstate Hochul is to overwhelmingly win larger counties like Monroe, Onondaga, Albany and her home territory of Erie — the most populous upstate county. The suburb of Westchester County, just north of New York City, is also crucial: Cuomo’s victories have been boosted by strong wins in what was once his home county.

City-based Democratic adviser Jon Paul Lupo, who doesn’t work for Hochul, said the governor is exposed to national trends “outside her control” — such as a political shift to the right among some Latino and white voters.

“I don’t think her personal excitement is really the issue. The question is, do the Democrats in New York City understand that this race is close enough to meaning, and will they go and stand out?” he said in an interview.

“In the last two weeks we’ve seen more action from the Hochul campaign to make that happen.”

Anna Gronewold contributed to this report. Kathy Hochul’s slipping poll ratings could fuel her campaign for New York governor

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