Empire State Shocker

Start spreadin’ the news.

This race is in play.

Zeldin has got a shot at it.

New York, New York.

Today, Split Ticket is moving the governor’s election in New York State from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic. Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin is mounting a stronger-than-expected challenge.

New York, a heavily blue state, is not normally on the radar for competitive elections. The last single-digit statewide race was the 2010 Comptroller election, when Republican Harry Wilson came within 5% of victory. Since then, the state has marched inexorably bluer, becoming more and more out of reach for the GOP. Could this year be different?

New York’s Democratic governor, Kathy Hochul, has broadly pushed a liberal policy agenda in Albany, making her less popular than an incumbent Democrat would like. An overwhelming cause of her relative weakness as a candidate is the salience of crime as a political issue. In the wake of the pandemic, transgressions, especially those against Asian-Americans and Orthodox Jews, have increased. As New York has large populations of both groups, a perceived Democratic failure to address law-breaking may yield an opening for the GOP. This is especially true of Asian-Americans, as most Orthodox Jewish voters already lean Republican.

Another cause of her relative unpopularity is her low profile. Hochul hails from Erie County, the furthest away from New York City one can possibly get in the state. She is, in fact, the first upstate governor New York has had since FDR in 1932. Even before 2022, when Hochul ran against Jumaane Williams and Tom Suozzi for Governor in the Democratic primary, her 2018 run for Lieutenant Governor showed weakness with progressive whites in New York City neighborhoods from Park Slope to Astoria. Pricing in some amount of education polarization-induced slippage among minority voters, there is theoretically a path for Zeldin to improve upon the Molinaro 2018 performance in New York City.

As it relates to NYC, Zeldin is almost singlehandedly hammering the issue of crime. The theme has the potential to unite many demographics due to its high salience among less-ideologically-crystallized immigrant communities in New York City. In the wake of the cultural ragefest that was the 2020 election, Democrats, all else being equal, lost ground with minorities, particularly with Asian-American voters. A big part of Curtis Sliwa’s overperformance with Asian-American voters in the 2021 mayoral race was his emphasis on fighting anti-Asian hate crimes. These trends stem in part from voters casting ballots solely for President, but the underlying developments are still impactful.

As an example, the new 17th senate district takes in the heavily Chinese neighborhoods of Bensonhurst and Bath Beach in southern Brooklyn. In 2017, Nicole Malliotakis won this by around 9 in her mayoral run. Four years later, that margin increased to nearly 15.

The total population in the New Utrecht-Bath Beach-Gravesend-Bensonhurst quartet is plurality Asian, but in mayoral elections the electorate is plurality white. Where the Asian slippage is visible is in Sunset Park, precincts that were blue in 2017 have now become red. Zeldin’s hope is to turbocharge this pre-existing trend.

The other big asset Zeldin has is riding Hochul’s unpopularity to capitalize on New York’s relative elasticity. Upstate New York, as well as Zeldin’s native Long Island, routinely splits tickets for federal Democrats and downballot Republicans. A map of 2020 presidential vs. downballot comparisons is provided below for Suffolk County.

In 2021, after Nassau County voted for Biden and Suffolk voted for Trump by less than 300 votes, Republicans won solid victories to local countywide office. These areas have nearly 8 million people in them, and Upstate counties have a little bit more than that. Particularly on Long Island among moderates and independents who know Zeldin, he may benefit from some ticket splitting.

In short, New York is a very big state – twice as big and twice as Democratic as Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia. For Zeldin to outdo Youngkin, he would need four times the effort. But Hochul is unpopular enough, and there are enough signs of volatility in the Democratic coalition that Zeldin is looking to exploit for the race to potentially be competitive. Already, numerous polls show the race as a single-digit heat. Zeldin cannot seem to inch above 46%, but that is far better than any Republican gets in New York. Most importantly: a popular incumbent Democratic governor would be winning polls by double digits, which Hochul is not.

Summarizing all this information, Zeldin’s path is as follows:

  1. Match Trump’s 2020 numbers in New York City, and exceed them with Asian-American voters, ideally approaching the 2021 mayoral results. Flipping more lower-information and non-ideological voters from blue to red is key here because traditionally, higher turnout in minority communities in New York City is correlated with higher Democratic vote share.
  2. Outperform 2021 local election metrics in Nassau and Suffolk counties. This is Zeldin’s real base and if he wants to win statewide, Suffolk has to be a 20 point GOP win and Nassau has to be pushing 15. Long Island is a politically idiosyncratic place so there is a nonzero probability of this happening.
  3. Do 10-15 points better than Marc Molinaro’s 2018 performance in Upstate New York.

All of these seem like tall asks, but so did similar pathways to victory for Youngkin in Virginia. If Split Ticket had to guess, in 9 cases out of 10 Hochul would win, but because forecasting is a business of uncertainty, erring on the side of caution is wise. New York Governor is now Likely Democratic.

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