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Hochul leads Zeldin in the governor's race, but a win is not guaranteed

Hochul-Zeldin.jpg
Hochul: New York NOW
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Zeldin: WXXI file photo
Gov. Kathy Hochul, left, and Rep. Lee Zeldin are competing in the New York governor's race.

With a little less than three months until Election Day in New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul is comfortably ahead of her challenger, Long Island Rep. Lee Zeldin.

But in a volatile political climate, nothing is for certain.

Hochul has held the office of governor for slightly less than a year, after Andrew Cuomo resigned in a sexual harassment scandal. But she’s already proven adept at using the power of office to boost her profile and raise money.

So far, she’s raised over $38 million, and after spending over $25 million of it in the June primary — where she beat two Democratic opponents — she still has over $11 million left for the fall campaign.

The governor maintains a very active public schedule, and her access to the state’s aircraft makes it easier to hold as many as a dozen events a week.

Hochul has held numerous bill-signing ceremonies and media events to highlight multimillion-dollar grants approved in the state budget, including $200 million in funds to revitalize downtowns in communities across the state, $10 million to help abortion providers, and $255 million for water infrastructure projects.

She’s also racked up endorsements from numerous unions, whose members often help with get-out-the-vote efforts.

Hochul also has some solid accomplishments. She got the state budget done relatively on time, and she strengthened the state’s gun safety laws after a mass shooting in Buffalo killed 10 people. She also took action in the face of two U.S. Supreme Court rulings that struck down the state’s concealed carry laws and abortion rights.

Hochul said New York won’t limit a woman’s reproductive freedom, offering three messages for those who are leading the “assault” on a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.

“They are: Not here, not now, not ever,” the governor said on June 13, when she signed into law several protections, including safeguarding the right to an abortion for patients both from New York and from states where the procedure is now banned.

The laws also prohibit the state from extraditing a patient or a health care practitioner to another state to face abortion-related charges if the procedure was conducted in New York.

Hochul is ahead of Zeldin in the polls. In a Siena College poll released in early August, Hochul was 14 points ahead, at 53% to Zeldin’s 39%.

But Siena spokesman Steve Greenberg said Hochul’s lead is not “insurmountable.”

Zeldin is slightly ahead with independent voters, at 44% to 42%, and he’s three points ahead among upstate voters and in the New York City suburbs. Greenberg said the governor has yet to pass the key 50% threshold in her voter approval ratings.

“It has been between 42% and 46% every month for her first year in office,” Greenberg said. “ She’s got to grow that.”

Hochul said she is taking nothing for granted.

“I always run like an underdog up until the very last minute,” she said. “That’s why I am successful.”

Zeldin has far less money to spend on his campaign — he reported having $1.6 million in the most recent July 15 filings. He has focused on a few key issues, including the rising crime rate and the state’s controversial 2019 bail reform laws.

The laws have twice been revised by Democrats in the Legislature, but Zeldin said to combat rising crime rates, they need to be repealed.

In late July, Zeldin was attacked during a campaign speech in the Rochester area by a man with a pointed self-defense-style keychain. The man was arrested but released without bail a few hours later. Zeldin, who was not injured, said it’s an example of flaws in the laws.

“His words to me were, ‘You're done, you’re done, you're done,' as he was approaching my throat,” Zeldin said. “He was charged with a violent felony and then he was released back out onto the streets.”

Hochul said changes made to the laws in April give judges more power to set bail, but she said the judges and prosecutors are not using the new tools properly.

Zeldin has an unlikely ally on this issue in Democratic New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who also wants changes in the bail laws to prevent what he said are a small number of criminals from abusing the system. Adams has endorsed Hochul for governor, though.

Zeldin has since said that the accused man, David Jakubonis, a war veteran suffering from PTSD, should be helped to overcome his mental health challenges. But his campaign continues to use the incident in ads.

“A man aggressively attacks Lee Zeldin, with a weapon,” a narrator says as threatening music plays in the background. “Only hours later, the attacker was released under New York’s dangerous cashless bail program.”

Jakubonis was charged a few days later by federal authorities with attempting to assault a member of Congress and has been incarcerated while awaiting further court proceedings.

Zeldin opposes abortion rights and gun control, but he has not made those positions a focus in his campaign. Polls show most New Yorkers support abortion rights and some gun safety regulations.

Zeldin has instead accused Hochul of stalling on a report on how well the state handled the COVID-19 pandemic, including her predecessor’s controversial policies for nursing homes. One required the homes to take back from the hospital patients with the disease, something critics say contributed to thousands of additional deaths. The report is not due to be finished until after the election.

And most recently, he sided with farm owners over labor unions in opposing the state’s plan to phase in a 40-hour workweek for their employees.

Zeldin is aware that he has to win over more Democrats, women and New York City voters if he wants to be successful in November.

“We’re working hard to earn the support, not just of Republicans, but also independents and Democrats as well,” said Zeldin, who added the “magic number” is to get to 29% in New York City.

Hochul is nearly 50 points ahead of Zeldin in New York City, at 70% to 21%, where a third of all votes are likely to be cast.

Zeldin predicts that he will do better than the polls currently show.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.