Rep. Lee Zeldin on the campaign trail (photo: @leezeldin)
As Republican U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin runs to become New York Governor, he has made the core planks of his general election campaign crime and cost of living. Meanwhile, he has sought to further energize his base to “fire” Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul over a lack of public safety, high taxes, her role as Lieutenant Governor, and more.
But as the fall general election approaches, Zeldin has continued to take votes in Congress that signify how his conservative politics are out of step with what polling shows the vast majority of New Yorkers support on several prominent issues. Any Republican faces an uphill battle in heavily-Democratic New York, where no GOP nominee has won statewide since 2002, but Zeldin appears to be doing a limited amount to woo the independent and Democratic voters he will need to win.
In recent months, the political conversation has been subsumed in large part by major U.S. Supreme Court decisions overturning Roe v. Wade abortion rights and a New York-specific concealed carry gun law. Meanwhile, Zeldin, who represents New York’s 1st Congressional District on Long Island, has taken key votes in the House of Representatives and articulated stances on issues like abortion rights, contraception access, and gun safety regulations that differ widely with what public opinion polling shows is preferred by New Yorkers -- often even majorities of Republicans and independents.
The votes have given Hochul and her campaign regular ammunition to criticize Zeldin as an “extremist” who is out of touch with New Yorkers’ priorities just as the general election heats up. They have combined such attacks with regular comments on Zeldin’s close ties to former President Donald Trump, who remains deeply unpopular in New York and was helping Zeldin raise money over Labor Day weekend. Zeldin supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Experts say that Zeldin's positions on hot-button issues, which helped him appeal to a conservative electorate in the GOP gubernatorial primary and over several terms in his district, may be significantly hurting his already slender chances in the general election.
The most recent Siena Research Institute polling in early June and late July found that voters widely oppose the Supreme Court’s rulings overturning New York’s concealed gun carry restrictions and the federal right to an abortion, and that they are widely supportive of protecting abortion rights under almost all circumstances.
But Zeldin has said that he supports the Supreme Court’s two recent rulings and that he opposes popular New York laws -- some passed recently by Hochul and the Democrat-dominated State Legislature -- that limit their impact. Those include new state gun laws expanding background checks and safety course requirements for concealed carry permits, which even majorities of conservatives and gun owners say they support.
Zeldin has voted against or did not vote on several bills meant to enhance gun safety and regulations, like the recently-passed Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which as its name indicates came out of a deal among Republicans and Democrats. The law makes it harder for some potentially dangerous individuals to obtain firearms and allocates more federal funding for crisis intervention and mental health services. All 220 Democrats and 15 Republicans voted for the bill.
Zeldn has also pledged to repeal laws like the NY SAFE act, a popular 2013 gun regulation package that banned new sales of most assault-style weapons in New York.
In July, Zeldin also voted against bills that would federally protect an individual's ability to access contraceptives and abortion care – namely the Right to Contraception Act and Ensuring Access to Abortion Act. Eight House Republicans voted for the bill.
That same month Zeldin, along with 47 other Republicans, voted in support of a bill that would enshrine same-sex marriage nationally. The vote was taken in part as a response to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, with the apparent threat to the Court’s 2015 ruling on marriage equality.
Seemingly aware of his electoral vulnerability on his guns and abortion stances, Zeldin has tried to move the conversation away from them, saying that they distract from what he calls more pressing issues, like crime and the economy. He’s also emphasized that given the certainty at least the State Assembly will remain in Democratic hands, if not both houses of the Legislature, New York’s strong abortion protections would likely remain in place if he became governor.
But as job numbers have become more robust and gas prices have fallen, abortion and gun rights seem to have become even more salient as voters – particularly independents – are worrying less about the economy, says Bruce Gyory. A political scientist, Democratic strategist, and senior advisor at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, Gyory closely studies polling, voting trends, and the demographics of the electorate.
“There was all this talk of recession and stagflation. Well, the latest jobs numbers show it sure as heck doesn't look like we're going into a recession, at least anytime soon,” said Gyory. “And now all of a sudden independent voters, who seemed to be driven by crime and inflation, seem to be quite worried about [reproductive] choice and the excesses of the ‘right to life’ movement.”
When Zeldin was fighting to win in his district and the Republican primary for Governor, touting hard-line conservative anti-abortion and pro-gun stances helped him appeal to GOP voters and raise money from major Republican donors. Like various New York Republicans who run statewide or in many areas that are not fully dominated by conservatives, Zeldin finds himself in the challenging place of having to win a GOP primary and then win over moderates.
“If your question is, has Zeldin's voting record got him in trouble? Yes,” said Gyory.
“And not only that, but he had some unforced errors,” he added, including fanning the idea of appointing an anti-abortion health commissioner just a week before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and calling to repeal New York’s gun regulations in the weeks leading up to a racist mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo.
Zeldin’s positions on these issues will make it harder for him to win key downstate voters, which he needs to unite a successful coalition on crime and the economy across more rural and suburban areas of the state, says Tom Doherty, a partner at Mercury Public Affairs and former aide to Governor George Pataki, the last Republican to win statewide in New York.
“The people that care about the right to bear arms, so to speak, they're already voting for him,” said Doherty. “He needs the mom in Westchester County, who's concerned [about crime] that her kids have to work in the city now. Well, that same mom is probably pro-choice. That's why there's a lot of hurdles he needs to overcome.”
A Zeldin campaign spokesperson did not return a request to comment for this article.
Zeldin’s Votes and Positions on Major Issues
As a member of Congress in recent months, Zeldin has consistently voted against bills that are popular in New York, at least in concept, even as he has in other ways tried to move the political discourse away from two major issues Democrats are hammering him on.
Most recently in Congress, Zeldin voted against an assault weapons ban, which makes it a crime to knowingly import, sell, manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon or large capacity ammunition feeding device. Siena polling from 2018 showed that New York Republicans (51%), Democrats (78%), and independents (55%) support the re-institution of such a ban, which existed from 1994-2004.
Zeldin declined to vote on the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in late June, making it the first gun safety legislation passed in three decades. He voted against the Active Shooter Alert Act of 2022, which proposes setting up a system to alert people in case of a nearby active shooter, and the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act of 2021, which proposes authorizing federal courts to issue extreme risk protection orders that prohibit an individual from purchasing, possessing, or receiving a firearm or ammunition.
Despite deep disapproval of it among New York, Zeldin has praised the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn the state’s century-old law putting significant limits on concealed carry of firearms.
“I believe that the Supreme Court made the correct decision,” he told NY1. “If a law-abiding citizen wants to safely and securely carry a firearm for their personal self-defense, we should not treat that the same way as the criminal who seeks to harm others.”
By a 79-15% margin, those surveyed in Siena’s June poll said that they wanted the Supreme Court to uphold the law, including 72% of gun owners, 79% of Republicans, and 77% of independents.
New York voters are widely supportive of other measures that limit firearm ownership and use, such as new Hochul-signed laws that require permits to obtain semi-automatic rifles, expand eligibility requirements to carry concealed weapons, and take several other new steps. The Siena surveys conducted in early June and late July found that more than three-quarters of voters, including at least 65% of every demographic group, support the new gun laws, with approval for them strong among even conservatives and gun owners.
Zeldin has expressed his disapproval of those new laws, in addition to pledging to repeal other popular legislation like the SAFE Act.
In July, Zeldin also voted against three bills related to women’s reproductive rights that all passed the Democrat-controlled House. Those include the Right to Contraception Act, which would federally protect an individual's ability to access contraceptives; the Ensuring Access to Abortion Act of 2022, which would prohibit anyone acting under state law from interfering with a person's ability to access out-of-state abortion service; and the Women's Health Protection Act of 2022, which prohibits governmental restrictions on the provision of, and access to, abortion services before fetal viability, which is around 24 weeks into pregnancy. After that point, it allows states to restrict abortion access only when “in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health."
According to the July Siena poll, the vast majority of New Yorkers oppose the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe.
“Prior to the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs, New Yorkers said they wanted the Court to uphold Roe 60-24%. Today, 68% say they oppose the decision to overturn Roe, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion,” Siena pollster Steven Greenberg said in a press release announcing the late July survey results. “Although a small majority of Republicans support the Dobbs decision, it is opposed by 89% of Democrats, 60% of independents, and at least 62% of voters from every region, age group, gender, and race.
On the question of whether abortion should be always or mostly legal, the answer was yes for 88% of New York Democrats, 75% of independents, and 50% of Republicans, as well as at least two-thirds of voters from every region, age group, gender, race and religion.
Zeldin, who has long held strong anti-abortion beliefs, has said he supports the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe.
“In a state that has legalized late-term partial birth abortion and non-doctors performing abortion, in a state that refuses to advance informed consent and parental consent, and where not enough is being done to promote adoption and support mothers, today is yet another reminder that New York clearly needs to do a much better job to promote, respect and defend life,” Zeldin said in a campaign statement when the ruling was released.
Additionally, Zeldin could face strong headwinds in wooing independents and Democrats for the general election based on his stances on climate action, Gyory noted, especially as the general election will occur just after hurricane season.
Zeldin proposes repealing the state ban on fracking for natural gas, approving new gas pipelines, and suspending energy taxes. When asked by Gotham Gazette to comment on the potential environmental impact of those initiatives and whether Zeldin has a plan to combat climate change, his campaign did not provide a response.
Zeldin's Bid at the Ballot Box
For Republicans to win statewide in New York – where they are outnumbered two to one by Democrats and slightly by independents – they need to hammer salient talking points like those on crime and the economy that affect voters virtually everywhere, said Doherty. But that’s not necessarily enough.
“You need to run a perfect race,” said Doherty. “You need to hit an inside straight and you can't make any mistakes along the way.”
“Just being a Republican in New York, you start in a hole, and have to work to reinforce the messaging about what the problems are,” he added. “And the problems are inflation, crime.”
Experts say that Zeldin’s voting record and stances have already hurt his slim election chances in a state that hasn’t elected an anti-abortion governor since reproductive rights became a focus topic in the 1970s.
Gyory said there is evidence that voters are already making electoral decisions with gun control and abortion rights in mind as economic concerns dim slightly, citing Hochul’s increase in support among independents, who are critical to Zeldin’s chances.
When voters were asked whether they would vote to elect Hochul in early June, only 29% of independents and other voters who are not Democrats or Republicans said they would. When asked a similar version of that question in late July, the number rose to 42%. The most recent Siena polling from July showed Hochul with a 14-point lead (53%-39%) over Zeldin among likely voters, with 9% saying they did not plan to vote or did not have an opinion.
Others, like Republican strategist Chapin Fay, are more optimistic about Zeldin’s chances.
“With New Yorkers unsafe in the streets and financially insecure at the kitchen table, this election is going to be won or lost on the issues of crime and the economy,” said Fay, Founder and CEO of Lighthouse Public Affairs. “New York State already has some of the most expansive abortion laws and restrictive gun laws in the nation, and that's not going to change. If the Democrats continue to refuse to act on these issues, what will change is Lee Zeldin will be our next Governor.”
But Doherty recalls that even when Pataki defeated three-term incumbent Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo in 1994, he held liberal views on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, the environment, and more. Vying to become the first Republican Governor of New York State in two decades with odds similar to Zeldin's in this race, Pataki was less vulnerable on some of those issues and also successfully campaigned on his pledges to cut taxes and instate criminal justice policies like the death penalty.
“People always have this fantasy of, you know, George Pataki in 1994,” said Doherty. “Pataki is not Lee Zeldin in 2022. It's just a different state.”