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Republican Gubernatorial Primary Debates Rife with Misinformation about 2020 Election, January 6 Insurrection, Covid, and More

Republican primary debate in race for NY Governor (photo: pool)

The four Republican candidates running for governor have faced off in three debates ahead of the June 28 primary, each attempting to set themselves apart from the others and from the Democratic governor, Kathy Hochul, who they want to replace. But in their appeals to the party faithful, three of the candidates have indulged in misinformation, half-truths, and outright lies about the 2020 presidential election, the January 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection, the covid vaccine, criminal justice reforms in New York, Critical Race Theory, and more.

New York holds closed primaries so only Republicans are able to cast a vote for the gubernatorial nomination. The task currently at hand for the four candidates -- Rep. Lee Zeldin, Harry Wilson, Rob Astorino, and Andrew Giuliani -- is not necessarily to convince the broader electorate about their qualifications and vision, but dedicated Republicans about their adherence to party orthodoxy.

Wilson has been willing to break from the party line and is running as an independent “outsider,” but, much like the party’s standard bearer, former President Donald Trump, the other Republican candidates for New York governor have been playing it especially fast-and-loose with the facts as they make their campaign pitches to their base. 

“Candidates do what they think will get them elected,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government reform group. “As a group, the GOP candidates for NY governor think GOP voters do not care if they lie. What else is there to say?”

Three of the candidates – Zeldin, Giuliani and Astorino – have either distorted the truth or outright lied about things including the results of the 2020 presidential election was fairly decided, the effectiveness of the covid vaccine, the link between state bail reforms and increasing violent crime, and state abortion law. Wilson has skewed far closer to the truth, while treading softly on some of the more controversial issues in an apparent effort to not repel the Republican voter base.

Two of the candidates – Zeldin and Giuliani – have taken pains to demonstrate their loyalty to Trump, even as the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has been holding public hearings concurrently with the New York primary and painstakingly showing the then-president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

They have also emulated him. For instance, Zeldin has given his opponents quippy monikers – “Never Trumper” Harry Wilson and “Rolex Rob” Astorino – just like the former president has been known to do with his rivals and critics. Giuliani has gone as far as publicly insisting that Trump won the 2020 presidential election, a denial of reality in the mode of his father’s work as Trump’s advisor and attorney. 

“Right now, the Republican Party is allowing the toxin of Donald Trump, and what he did and his lies, to continue to infect the party and not standing up against it.” said Republican U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, on The Daily podcast hosted by the New York Times, amid the January 6 hearings. Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, was ousted from her Republican leadership position for challenging Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

While Wilson has largely avoided the same lies and misinformation spread by the other three, all four have severely exaggerated when discussing a focus issue of the campaign on both sides of the aisle: the impact of state bail reforms on the violent crime surge of the last two years. The Republican candidates have repeatedly claimed without evidence that bail reforms approved by the Democrat-controlled state Legislature and then-Governor Andrew Cuomo have caused the gun violence spikes of 2020 and 2021.

While inaccurate, that notion has been promoted by Democrats as well, including New York City Mayor Eric Adams (a former Republican) and Rep. Tom Suozzi, who is running in the Democratic primary for governor. When pressed on his claimed connections between bail reform and the increase in gun violence, Suozzi has backed away from calling it causal. 

“These are debates for the party faithful for both parties,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a good government group, about the primary debates on both sides of the aisle. 

“What’s really going to matter is how they defend their proposals going into the general, because there, the myths and lies don't usually hold up, because you're appealing to the vast majority of voters,” he added.

Here are some of the lies and mistruths that the Republican candidates have shared — none of the campaign responded to requests for comment for this story:

Trump's 'Big Lie'
Former President Trump’s ‘big lie’ that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him through widespread fraud has continued to hold purchase among the president’s most loyal supporters. Trump used that lie to whip up the crowd that eventually stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 to prevent Joe Biden’s victory from being certified, while Trump and his team were taking steps behind the scenes to illegally overturn the results of the election. 

“The lie hasn’t gone away,” said U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, on the fourth day of the congressional hearings on the January 6 insurrection. “It is corrupting our democratic institutions. People who believe that lie are now seeking positions of public trust.” 

Among those people is Andrew Giuliani, who said at the second primary debate on June 20, “I believe that Donald Trump on November 3, 2020 was reelected.”  

Zeldin, who was among the Republicans in Congress who voted against certifying the election later the same day as the Capitol riot, has also cast doubt on whether the election was fairly decided, pointing to legal challenges in Pennsylvania, which was one of the most consequential states in the election. “It's something that we’ll never for sure know the exact consequence of in Pennsylvania, allowing one county to have different rules than another county or not allowing the close observation of the opening of ballots,” he said at the second debate. 

Astorino was less direct, but nonetheless said the 2020 election raised concerns about election integrity despite claims of voter fraud being repeatedly debunked, dozens of court cases being dismissed, and the Trump team failing to ever provide evidence of its claims. “Unfortunately, Joe Biden is our president because we're dealing with this right now,” Astorino said. “I'll tell you what was stolen from us. What was stolen from us was our belief in the election system right now.”

“The problem was every state, every Republican governor, every Republican legislature, every state, all 50 sent in their certified results. So there really wasn't anything that they could do other than accept those results,” Astorino lamented of the 2020 election results and the role of the Congress and Vice President Mike Pence. 

Wilson, alone among the Republican candidates for governor, said, “So I believe Joe Biden was duly elected president of the United States. I believe that we Republicans need to move on and focus on addressing the problems that really hurt working families today.”

Trump’s Role in January 6
The former president spent weeks urging his base to reject the election results that showed Biden had won the presidency and called on them to rally in Washington D.C. on January 6 under the banner of “Stop the Steal.” At a rally that day, before the electoral votes based on certified state results would be counted by Congress, the president addressed the many thousands of people assembled and told them to “fight much harder” and to walk to the Capitol and “show strength” to Congress. 

At one point Trump did say, “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.” 

But he later followed that up by saying Biden would be an “illegitimate president” if the election was certified. He told the crowd, “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

Most Republicans, including the candidates for New York governor, have been wary of assigning blame to Trump for what took place after: the violent attack on the Capitol building in which rioters invaded congressional offices with the intention of harming members of Congress, including Republicans, and Vice President Pence, who Trump repeatedly vilified leading up to and on January 6, 2021. (Pence endorsed Zeldin this week, while Trump has remained on the sidelines of the primary given ties to both Zeldin and Giuliani.)

Astorino is the only one who faulted Trump. “I do think he bears some responsibility,” he said of the former president, at the first debate. But he went on to describe the January 6 congressional hearings as “complete and utter political theater in Washington, D.C.”

The rest of the candidates were either circumspect or even praised the president. 

“I think President Trump was a great president and honestly, I'm hopeful that he runs again,” Giuliani said at the first debate.

Zeldin parroted select portions of the then-president’s words. “President Trump told his supporters to go peacefully and patriotically to the Capitol and if President Trump wants to run [in 2024], he should run and I believe that he will be the Republican nominee and he'll win,” he said at the debate. 

Wilson did not say the president was to blame. “Mr. Trump did not invade the Capitol,” he said. “The people who broke the law by invading the Capitol should be prosecuted and that's where the responsibility lies,” Wilson added, even as the January 6 committee, in part led by Republican Rep. Cheney, had already been outlining its case that Trump’s deeds had caused that law-breaking.

At one January 6 committee hearing, Cheney pointed to various actions Trump took that would make him liable for the Capitol riot: He “falsely declared victory” in the election. His campaign launched “a fraudulent media campaign” persuading millions of Americans that the election was stolen from him. He launched a “fraudulent fundraising campaign” based on those false claims. He and his allies “corruptly attempted” to pressure Pence to reject the electoral votes and he “provoked a violent mob” to pursue Pence. The then-president “oversaw and personally participated” in an effort to “vilify, threaten and pressure election officials” and legislators to change the election results. And, he worked with the Republican National Committee to create fake electoral slates and send those to federal officials. 

“These efforts were not some minor or ad hoc enterprise concocted overnight,” Cheney said. “Each required planning and coordination. Some required significant funding. All of them were overseen by President Trump.” 

“What happened on January 6 was an attempted coup and it failed, thankfully,” said NYPIRG’s Horner.

Horner said questions about whether Trump’s actions amounted to illegal behavior will ultimately fall to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. “I'm not in a place to know if he broke the law, but certainly he broke the political norm in our democracy that, for over two centuries, when you lose an election, you gracefully concede and pass the torch on to the winner,” he said. “He refuses to do that.” 

COVID-19 and Vaccination
Giuliani is the only candidate who has decided against receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and was therefore prevented from appearing in person at the first two debates. He was on stage for the final debate hosted by Newsmax. But all the candidates have sowed doubts about vaccines, the nature of COVID-19 as a highly-transmissible and deadly disease, and the reasoning behind covid mandates, even as the pandemic is far from over.

Zeldin in particular has railed against the push for as many people as possible to get “the covid shot,” as he typically refers to it, making it more an issue of government overreach than public health, though he is not alone in that among the candidates. Often, the candidates have focused on the personal freedom to not be vaccinated, typically ignoring the various vaccine mandates required of children to attend school that have helped prevent outbreaks of a variety of deadly diseases — creating widespread adult immunity via childhood vaccinations was not possible with COVID-19 given its novelty.

Astorino, among others, publicly questioned the efficacy of the covid vaccines because people can still contract and become ill with covid after being inoculated, leaving out that in the vast majority of cases the vaccines prevent severe illness or death.

“We're no longer in a pandemic. We've got to stop acting like we are,” Astorino said at the second debate. He also added, “We know, as the CDC has said, [the vaccine] does not stop the spread at all. We know that. Neither do those masks. We know that.” 

Though the CDC did say that vaccinated people could still be infected with covid (particularly the Delta variant), the agency has emphasized that those people are far less likely to get the virus than unvaccinated people and will experience less severe symptoms than if they weren’t vaccinated. There are also countless studies that show masking is extremely effective in preventing transmission of covid.  

Zeldin too questioned the vaccine even though, no matter the disease, vaccines have never been 100% effective. “The definition of vaccine has changed,” he insisted at the second debate. “I used to remember that if you get a vaccine, that means that you have immunity to what they're giving you that shot for but all of a sudden, suddenly with the COVID vaccine, the definition changes because even if you get it, you can still contract COVID.”

“I think it's a fundamentally different disease, and that's why I think it should be treated differently than existing vaccination requirements,” said Wilson, who did not explain how he sees it as fundamentally different and said the covid vaccine should not be mandated for children under the age of 5. 

“I think it's unfortunate that any elected official would discourage people from being vaccinated against COVID-19,” said Dr. Jay Varma, an international infectious disease expert who was Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top advisor for the city’s public health response for most of the pandemic, beginning in April 2020. “The overwhelming consensus of public health experts, government or university, is that COVID vaccines are safe and effective.”

When asked, the candidates said they support required vaccinations for diseases like chicken pox and measles for children to attend schools, but would not add covid vaccination to that list, raising unfounded concerns about its rapid development and potential side effects. Giuliani even questioned, without any evidence at all, whether the vaccine could hamper the reproductive system of his young daughter as he insisted that he would not give her the vaccine.  

“I am not a biologist, nor am I an epidemiologist,” he said as he insisted he would need to see more data on the vaccine. “I think we've completely politicized the science when it comes to this at this point.” 

As Varma pointed out, the diseases for which vaccines are currently required in schools caused fewer deaths before those vaccines were available than covid already has in children. “We know that covid causes severe illness and death in children,” he said. “Any deaths in a child should be something that we try to avoid as much as possible.” He also noted that if children are sick then their parents stay home from work, which has consequences for the economy as well. 

All the Republican gubernatorial candidates have also promised to lift vaccination requirements for public sector workers and said that they would rehire state workers that were fired for refusing to get the covid vaccine. None spoke of the value of encouraging widespread vaccination in order to limit covid spread and reduce the most severe outcomes as much as possible, nor did they mention the possible risk of outbreaks from bringing those workers back to the workplace. 

Varma said the vaccine mandate widely increased the vaccination rate in the city and state, the benefit of which was significantly reducing the severity of illness and death among those who still contracted it. “We know that this virus continues to evolve and cause surges, and during every one of those surges, the single strongest protective factor is getting vaccinated,” he said. “So the best way to maintain that level of protection in New York is to have this mandate.”

Earlier this week, the CDC recommended that children between the ages of six months and 5 years should get vaccinated against COVID-19 with the newly-approved dosage, declaring it safe and effective. But at the second debate, three of the Republican candidates would not recommend that to their supporters, saying it was a decision best left to parents. 

Only Wilson encouraged people to get vaccinated and vaccinate their children. “I personally am vaccinated, boosted. I encourage people to do so,” he said. He added a caveat: “That is their choice and should not be required by the government, particularly for young children.”

Astorino also said that he has not vaccinated his children against covid. “My kids aren't vaccinated. My wife and I decided they don't need it. We follow the science,” he said, without elaborating on what science indicates children should not be vaccinated against COVID-19. “You're a parent, you can decide for your own children.”

Abortion in New York
Of the four candidates, only Wilson is pro-choice, supporting abortion rights for women. Like on other subjects where has differs from the other three candidates, he has voiced some caveats, such as saying he has some misgivings about New York’s law on abortion, which he believes “goes too far” in allowing non-doctor medical professionals to provide abortion care.

The candidates have all expressed concern about the state’s Reproductive Health Act, which was approved in 2019 and codified the protections of Roe v. Wade into state law. The legislation is particularly important in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling handed down on Friday that overturned Roe v. Wade. 

The candidates have repeatedly said they oppose so-called “partial-birth late-term abortions” that are allowed under the law, but partial-birth is a political formulation, not a medical term, and was created by anti-abortion activists. The state law does allow abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy, but only if the mother’s life or health are at risk or if the fetus is not viable. Those abortions occur very rarely, but Zeldin, Giuliani, and Astorino regularly make it appear that they are common and that Democrats in New York favor late-term and “partial-birth” abortions.

Astorino, in particular, criticized abortions “going to the moment of birth,” even though that virtually never happens.

Critical Race Theory
New York’s K-12 schools curriculum does not include Critical Race Theory, a legal theory about ingrained racial bias in U.S. institutions that is taught in college-level courses and beyond, mostly law schools. But the state Board of Regents has launched a “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” initiative aimed at inclusive and culturally responsive teaching and learning in schools.

The state’s DEI framework instructs school to consider acknowledging the role of racism and bigotry in American history, encourages family and community engagement, promotes a diverse school workforce, promotes student wellness and anti-discrimination policies, and more. 

The Republican candidates, except for Wilson, have all equated the teaching of the history of racism and the DEI initiative as tantamount to teaching CRT, and wielded that false allegation, just as other Republicans have used CRT nationally, to inflame racial tensions and stir up white parents about what their children are being ‘indoctrinated’ with.

CRT has become a controversial issue used by the right, a rhetorical tool in last year’s and this year’s elections to appeal to white voters. Those who oppose CRT say that it is used to indoctrinate children with “woke” ideology, convince children that all white people are racist, and erode parents’ rights in education. Dozens of states have even moved to ban CRT and, in their zeal, have also sought to prohibit broader anti-racist and culturally sensitive teaching. 

New York Republicans are no exception. 

“I would look at ‘Diversity, Equity, Inclusion,’ and I would call it what it is, which is Critical Race Theory 101,” Giuliani falsely said at the second debate. When asked, he could not define CRT or present an instance of when it was taught in schools. He also called equity a “dangerous concept” in education, conflating it with the idea that all students must have equal outcomes. 

“They keep coming up with new names for Critical Race Theory,” said Zeldin, also equating it with the DEI initiative. In May last year, when the federal Department of Education issued a draft rule about culturally responsive teaching in schools, Zeldin associated it with CRT. “Critical Race Theory is an indoctrination of kids that has no business in America's classrooms,” he tweeted. “This isn't teaching children how to combat racism & discrimination. It's a gross attempt to devalue, divide & dumb down our children.”

Astorino had a similar take. “[T]hings like CRT, which is seeping everywhere, is obviously when you divide people and tell people you're bad, you're a racist if you don't agree. No, that's not what we should be teaching,” he said.

Wilson largely side-stepped the question but said, “I look at it quite differently…which is that I think we have to celebrate the diversity of America but not go into these labels that don't really mean anything and are loaded terms.”

Bail Reform and Crime
In 2019, the Democrat-led state Legislature passed a major reform to state bail laws, eliminating cash bail for a series of misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses. Before and since its passage, conservatives and some moderates said it would lead to mayhem and have alleged that has transpired, even without facts to back up such claims.

The law was revisited in early 2020, just months after going into effect, and again this year by state lawmakers, partially rolling the reforms back each time. The changes were largely based on hearsay, anecdotes, and lies, but the chorus had become deafening and violent crime began to spike amid the pandemic. But there has remained a very limited connection between bail reform and violent crime.

At every turn, however, conservatives, some in law enforcement, and many moderate Democrats have pegged bail reform as the major, even singular, cause for the increase in violent crime despite data showing that there is “no clear connection,” as the Brennan Center for Justice concluded. Most of those critics of the law have also ignored the broader reality that violent crime spiked during the pandemic across the country and that many states, including those with Republican-led legislatures and governors, have not passed any similar legislation but have seen violent crime on the rise either way. 

Each of the Republican candidates for governor have promised that they will immediately move to repeal the bail reform – and a host of other criminal justice reforms –  though it would be a difficult task given Democrats control the Legislature by large margins.

Even Governor Kathy Hochul wanted broader changes to the bail law – including allowing judges to consider a “dangerousness standard” when setting bail – but those changes were rejected by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, though both houses did agree to some fairly significant changes to how bail can be assessed.

“Misinformation is bad, no matter what framework you're in,” Horner said. “It's important to tell people the truth, to offer evidence to buttress your policy claims. That's better for democracy and better for the electorate, even if it is the party faithful.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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