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The Question Hanging Over the New York GOP Convention: Who Can Win in November?

NY GOP gubernatorial candidates Lee Zeldin, Andrew Giuliani, Harry Wilson, and Rob Astorino (l-r)

Optimism reigned at the recent New York Republican Party state convention on Long Island, but tempering the bravado was the fact that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of the last statewide Republican win in the Empire State.

That drought was widely acknowledged and inspired the remarks of the four major Republican candidates for Governor this year, with each taking the stage at the Garden City Hotel in Nassau County to convince party leaders, members of the media, and others of their electability. While frontrunner Lee Zeldin, the Long Island congressional representative who far outpaced the others in becoming the party’s official designee for the June primary, focused his speech largely on his platform and attacks on Democrats, the other three explicitly made the case that they should be supported in the primary precisely because they can win the general election. 

Ultimately, each of the four — Zeldin, Andrew Giuliani, Harry Wilson, and Rob Astorino — made his case for how he is uniquely qualified to be the first Republican to win statewide since Governor George Pataki won a third and final term in 2002.

Even as that task has become harder given the state’s increasing Democratic voter enrollment advantage and population concentration in liberal New York City, Republicans are optimistic that this could be their year given recent local and national wins, the absence of Andrew Cuomo from the race, and other factors like recent crime increases in cities across the state, dissatisfaction with Democratic covid policies, and more.

Based on his dominance at the convention, Zeldin is the only GOP gubernatorial candidate guaranteed a spot on the June primary ballot, but Wilson, Astorino, and Giuliani all appear determined to get the voter petition signatures required to join him there and make it a competitive contest to see who will face the Democratic nominee in the general. On that side of the aisle, Governor Kathy Hochul likewise dominated her party’s recent convention, while New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Congressional Representative Tom Suozzi of Long Island are also in the running.

The Republican candidates acknowledged the difficult task they are trying to accomplish, and that winning statewide in the fall will require getting votes from Republicans, independents, and Democrats, including essential success in the suburbs of New York City like Long Island and Westchester, as well as a solid showing in the five boroughs themselves.

Here’s how each of the four Republican candidates for Governor made their electability pitch at the state convention on Tuesday, March 1:

Lee Zeldin
Zeldin argued that New Yorkers have reached a “breaking point,” and began his speech by telling a story about a visit with the Bellmore Republican Club. He spoke about a “big guy, he’s wearing a camouflage hat, maybe a veteran, maybe a first responder, I’m not sure, he said ‘this isn’t a regular campaign, this is a rescue mission, it’s a rescue mission to save our state.’”

“Save Our State” made its way onto all kinds of promotional materials at the Garden City convention, and it’s been a rallying cry for Zeldin’s campaign since it began in April 2021. Zeldin had locked up significant party support early on in the race, and he has continued to accrue endorsements from county party leaders and other Republican officials. State GOP Chair Nick Langworthy began calling Zeldin the presumptive nominee as early as June, and the congressman recently got the backing of the New York Conservative Party.

Zeldin has visited all 62 counties in New York at least twice, he’s said, and he gave a rousing convention speech touting the strength of his campaign, with an air of inevitability around both the support he would receive at the convention and eventually becoming the party nominee. While he locked up the former, the latter could be more of a challenge given the other three major candidates in the race.

Zeldin emphasized the grassroots nature of his campaign, especially small-dollar donations he’s received, and rattled off many of his campaign talking points to date. He cited last month’s fundraising report that boasted 34,000 donations.

Throughout his convention speech, Zeldin emphasized and re-emphasized what appear to be the top issues for the Republican Party: supporting police, countering outmigration, and relaxing covid protections and mandates, especially for children, saying toddlers should never be forced to wear a mask: “that’s child abuse, Kathy Hochul.”

“It’s not just about getting past covid, it's about restoring New York to glory, it's about backing the blue unapologetically,” Zeldin said, “…repealing cashless bail, firing district attorneys who refuse to enforce the law."

Harry Wilson
“Talk is cheap but proven success is absolutely critical,” said businessman Harry Wilson in his convention speech. Wilson, who entered the race only one week before the convention, has indicated he will spend more than $10 million of his own money on the race, and he has already begun a TV ad blitz.

Wilson has never held elected office but did run a strong campaign for State Comptroller against Democratic incumbent Tom DiNapoli in 2010. Wilson came within five percentage points in that race, winning 46.3% of the statewide vote, and touted that relative success during his convention speech, noting firmly that “in 20 years only one Republican, only one, has come close to winning statewide, and that was me. In 2010, in my first and only campaign, at the beginning I had no idea what I was doing, we almost beat a very popular Democratic incumbent, Tom DiNapoli. No one else has come within 30 points of him. And in all statewide races in the last 20 years, no one else has come within 13 points of winning.”

A graduate of Harvard Business School, Wilson has spent much of his 30-year career in business at firms like Goldman Sachs, Blackstone, and Silver Point Capital, where he was a partner. Wilson served as one of President Obama’s advisors on the automotive task force, facilitating General Motors’ bankruptcy and restructuring.

Wilson began his speech with two rhetorical questions: “First, who, if elected, will be the transformational governor we need to fix our state? Second, who has the best shot at winning? Everything else is academic. Now I've spent my entire career fixing failing organizations, big complicated messes that others said simply couldn't be saved, does that sound familiar? That's the state we live in.”

Wilson billed himself as an “outsider,” saying that he has “no interest in being in politics, no interest in being governor, but I have a deep, deep interest in fixing this state, in transforming this state back into the land of freedom, opportunity and safety.”

“I will not sit idly by,” Wilson said, “while career politicians destroy our state. If anyone else in the field could do it, I would gladly stay home, but I know I have the skills, the experience, and frankly the guts to fix it.”

Doubling down on his finance background, he vowed if successful  to go “through every dollar” in the state budget he inherits with the question “does this make the lives of New Yorkers better at a reasonable cost.”

Rob Astorino
Rob Astorino, the former two-term Westchester County Executive and 2014 Republican nominee for Governor, said of the 2022 election, “this game will be played and won in my backyard.” Calling Westchester “deep, deep blue,” Astorino touted at the state convention that he won twice “as an unabashed pro-life conservative” who cut the size of government and lowered taxes.

Of Republicans’ three gubernatorial election losses to Andrew Cuomo, Astorino ran the closest, winning 40% of the vote to Cuomo’s 54% in that 2014 contest, “then at the height of [Cuomo’s] popularity,” Astorino said.

“Too many Republicans were intimidated by him or cut deals with him including, as we know, some people in this hotel who have already had their chance to govern in Albany, and yes some went as far as to float a Cuomo presidency — not me,” Astorino said. “I went nose-to-nose with Cuomo, I knew who he was from the beginning, I knew what he represented, and I called out his corruption at every opportunity.”

He also mentioned that he won 46 out of 62 counties “in a year that was supposed to be a coronation for [Cuomo],” and that he won New York state outside the city by three percentage points. 

Astorino recalled in his speech a Republican Camelot where 16 years prior in the very ballroom where he was speaking, George Pataki was Governor, Michael Bloomberg was Mayor of New York City, and George W. Bush was President — “boy how things have changed,” Astorino said. Republicans are currently completely out of power in the federal government, New York state government, and New York City government.

Astorino’s references to his success in Westchester, undoubtedly a key battleground in New York’s 2022 elections, are undercut by facts he did not mention: his losses in more recent races there, including his 2017 county executive reelection bid and a State Senate campaign in 2020.

With his serious political pitch Astorino also sprinkled in crass jibes that were met with applause, saying taxes were not always “Hunter Biden high” and that in the season of Lent, “when Christians around the world will be doing a lot of soul searching, maybe Andrew Cuomo will even find one.”

In addition to selling himself as the candidate who had come closest to governor since George Pataki, he said, in Spanish, that he was the only Spanish speaking candidate in the race and that he could “attract and win the support of Latinos, African-Americans, immigrants, independents, and Democrats.”

Andrew Giuliani
Andrew Giuliani spoke about his relationship to the Republican Party vis-à-vis high-profile elected officials and GOP lore. He said he was honored to address the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Reagan, Pataki, Donald Trump, and his own father, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

As a prelude to his speech, he said he wanted to address the convention “as a son first and foremost,”  saying that people come up to him to laud the elder Giuliani’s tenure as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and mayor.

“There are a lot of people that come up to me and talk about how proud they are of Rudy Giuliani for his work in overturning the five families of the mob, probably might have cost him the 1989 election because for some reason the Italian vote didn’t come out the way we thought in 1989,” Giuliani said. “Who were proud of what he did in New York City turning around the rotten apple into the safest city in the country, who are obviously proud of his heroic effort on September 11th leading our NYPD, our FDNY our Port Authority police and all the heroes who gave their lives in sacrifice. But I, as his son, am more proud of him today than I have ever been because he recently took on a battle that was not popularly backed by the media, but was right, and we knew would sacrifice his reputation in those circles that believed it was more important to stay silent than it was to stand up for the good of our democracy. Well Rudy Giuliani stood up for the good of his democracy, stood up for the United States of America, and it’s why I, as his son, am more proud of him today than I have ever been.”

In his speech, he characterized his candidacy as exceptional on account of these relationships and his own stamina, claiming that he was the only candidate to travel to all 62 counties within the first month of his campaign. 

“I must tell you, this is going to be a 62-county effort that is going to get us over the finish line on November 8. And kick crime wave Kathy, by the way, chairman, if you want to give her the pink slip, you’re welcome to give her the pink slip right there, I might have to fight with you for Mayor Giuliani on that one but I am happy to give her her pink slip on November 8.”

He blamed grievances with Albany on government red tape, invoking President Trump’s campaign promise that for each regulatory measure he signed, he would cut two; Giuliani said that by the end of Trump’s term, that ratio was 1:8. He said that Trump’s deregulatory measures and tax cuts were responsible for low unemployment and a strong economy in 2020. 

Giuliani fused promises of Trump-style deregulation and economic fervor with an exceptionalist recap of the state’s history. 

“That’s the kind of economic change we can bring to New York ladies and gentlemen, it’s the same kind of dream that the Dutch West Indies company had when they developed a small trading post on the southern tip of Long Island, it’s the same idea that DeWitt Clinton had when he said and built the impossible Erie Canal connecting the United States to the rest of the world. Where? Not through Florida, not through Texas, but right here through the Empire State,” Giuliani said.

In a closing pitch, Giuliani asked the convention to consider the 2.9 million registered New York Republicans not in the ballroom. He cited high poll numbers implying that despite a practically guaranteed Zeldin convention victory, that he maintained an upper hand based on his sheer popularity.

June Primary
New York’s 2.9 million registered Republicans will ultimately decide the official party nomination for Governor and other races via the June primary election. The party convention results, where Zeldin got 85% of the weighted delegate vote, guarantee him a spot on the ballot, while Wilson, Astorino, and Giuliani will now have to collect 15,000 signatures from registered Republicans across the state in order to secure a ballot line.

As for whatever comes out of the primary on June 28, Giuliani said in his convention speech that he and the other candidates “will all certainly hug on June 29.”

by John Besche, Gotham Gazette

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