Lee Zeldin deviates from Trump Playbook to vote by mail ahead of New York gubernatorial election

CASTLETON-ON-HUDSON, New York — Fresh from a sunset helicopter ride, Lee Zeldin felt good and let his father’s jokes flow.

The Long Island Republican congressman was feeling so much in the mood that he didn’t just compare his drawn-out gubernatorial campaign to those of repeat New York winners like Senator Chuck Schumer and former governor George Pataki — the last Republican to win statewide in 2002. but also Prince of all people.

“And with all apologies to Prince, as I was thinking a few days ago, I think New York is ready to party like it’s 1994,” Zeldin said Thursday after the helicopter landed ahead of his rally, referring to Pataki’s surprise win over former Governor Mario Cuomo.

He even encouraged New Yorkers to vote by mail if they can’t show up on Election Day, and told reporters he’s confident in the state’s mail-in voting system, despite some concerns he had with the 2020 pandemic expansions.

“I would strongly encourage anyone who can’t vote in person to make sure they apply for absentee voting and get that ballot,” Zeldin said when asked by The Daily Beast if he had faith in absentee voting, adding that New York had procedures “stricter than red states” that were intended to inspire confidence.

In other words, Zeldin believes he can win, and he can’t afford to hamper his campaign by just playing by the Trump playbook.

Mixing standard GOP talk of crime and inflation with his own humor, he joked that visiting all 62 New York boroughs should henceforth be known as “the full Zeldin” instead of “the full Schumer.”

And while the helicopter photo op may have come up short, with the shot of the helicopter landing being obstructed by trees and a pre-arranged crowd of supporters holding signs, Zeldin and his high-profile second-in-command, Rep. Elise Stefanik, couldn’t have cared less.

For the pair of Empire State Republicans, Thursday night’s rally in front of more than 3,000 was something of a homecoming.

Zeldin attended Albany Law School and Stefanik attended the Albany Academy for Girls, both institutions with strong local alumni networks prone to agita over the two lawmakers’ embrace of former President Donald Trump.

But around the clubhouse of this otherwise sleepy golf course, about 20 minutes south of Albany, Zeldin and Stefanik were the homecoming king and queen, with local candidates and throngs of supporters keen to meet both members of Congress.

Stefanik said the crowd was the largest she’s seen at a rally in upstate New York in recent memory, promising voters “once in a century” they’d have a chance to flip the script by voting the Democratic Ousting Gov. Kathy Hochul, who has yet to face voters after taking over Andrew Cuomo after he resigned in August 2021.

Zeldin framed his campaign as a desire to “restore the balance” in Albany and made an appeal to independent voters and disaffected Democrats.

So far, the numbers haven’t backed that up, although Zeldin couldn’t ask for a better poll picture for election week, having closed the gap from almost 20 points in July to just 7 points with five days left, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model.

The main problem for Zeldin is the Democratic Party’s two-to-one registration advantage over the GOP statewide and five-to-one in New York City.

Even if Zeldin got every single Trump voter to turn up in the New York general election, Democrat turnout would have to fall below 60 percent of 2020 levels to have any chance of winning, according to data analysis by The City.

Registered Democrats have already surpassed their total number of early and mail-in votes from 2020 and 2018 this cycle, while Republicans and independents have not seen a similar increase.

That leaves huge Election Day crowds and a much higher than usual turnout in the Upstate and Long Island regions as Zeldin’s main source of hope, but rally attendees felt just as confident as the Prince-inspired candidate.

For Josh Kowalski, a 47-year-old from nearby Altamont who works in construction, the whole night was abnormal in the best sense of the word.

“Look, we don’t have that kind of vibe in upstate New York,” Kowalski told The Daily Beast. “Usually we know the results before the election.”

Kowalski, along with other participants, said this is the first time since the Pataki era that Republicans have felt that one of their own actually has a real chance in New York.

Jeff Cintula, a Burnt Hills engineer, cited bail bond reform and inflation as his top two concerns.

As someone who’s gotten used to Republicans being thrashed across the country and settling for victories in the Legislature or Congress here and there, Cintula said he believes this election may finally be the right one.

As Cintula peered over the crowd while dozens more voters waited in line and dozens more struggled to find parking, Cintula couldn’t help but feel the Zeldin Mentum.

“There’s enough excitement,” he said. “Just look at this place.” Lee Zeldin deviates from Trump Playbook to vote by mail ahead of New York gubernatorial election

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