ALBANY, N.Y. — New York’s far-right Republicans aren’t sleeping on what could be their widest opening yet to replace three-term Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose uncertain political future depends on state and federal investigations into his personal and professional behavior.
Just a day after New York passed a $212 billion budget packed with progressive goodies, Rep. Lee Zeldin(R-N.Y.) declared he would run for governor next year. The MAGA-aligned congressman’s bid comes after Andrew Guiliani, the son of the bombastic former New York City mayor, said he had discussed his own gubernatorial ambitions with former President Donald Trump, his father’s former client.
While those initial challengers — along with Lewis County Sheriff Michael Carpinelli — might signal a Republican primary brimming with celebrities and firebrands, State Party Chair Nick Langworthy has said the only way the GOP has a shot in 2022 would be to unify behind a single candidate. Langworthy, in a statement on Thursday, said he was “thrilled” by Zeldin’s announcement and looks forward to vetting him alongside other potential candidates at a meeting later this month.
But a Republican hasn’t won a statewide race in New York since moderate George Pataki scored a third term as governor nearly two decades ago, after initially defeating Andrew Cuomo’s father Mario to reach the gubernatorial suite. The state is solidly blue, and Cuomo has managed time and again to win over moderate Democrats and independent voters to crush his GOP challengers as well as members of his own party approaching from the left.
Democrats reacted with a shrug to news of Zeldin’s bid — and eye rolls for Guiliani, who was a White House aide under Trump.
“My feeling is that, disappointing though it may be, it is possible for another Republican to one day become governor, even in New York state,” state Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs said in an interview Thursday. “I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility. However, in order for that to happen, there has to be a confluence of circumstances — and mostly the Republican candidate has to be someone acceptable to New York voters. They have to be moderate and rational, and neither Zeldin or Guiliani fit that bill.”
It is much more likely that if Cuomo runs for a fourth term, he will face just as many — if not more — challenges from the left wing of his own party. Even if he doesn’t, the list of potential primary candidates Democrats are eyeing with varying levels of probability stretches from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Cuomo has not said whether he still plans to run for a fourth term. New York does not have term limits for its governors.
The most common name mentioned in political circles is state Attorney General Tish James, whose position guarantees she will receive serious consideration and who has flexed her political muscle in shaping the investigations dogging Cuomo. Her office is handling the handful of sexual harassment complaints made against the governor.
“James has the front-runner status,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College and longtime New York political commentator. “She’s got the most name recognition, visibility and she’s a statewide office. The report she produces — her verdict on Cuomo — could boost her prospects. But there will probably be something like 25 Democrats running. It will be like the [New York City] mayor’s race — heck, I might even run.”
A spokesperson for James declined to comment.
But not one potential primary contender has emerged so far, and none is visible on the horizon. Many of Cuomo’s allies have said they want to give him the benefit of the doubt by waiting on findings from James’ investigation — which she has said could take months — and an Assembly Judiciary Committee impeachment probe into his allegations of sexual misconduct and policy blunders.
“I would say first things first — first we have to see how the governor’s difficulties shake out,” Jacobs said. “That’s going to say a lot about what the shape of a primary is going to look like. It’s one thing to have a wounded incumbent and it’s quite another to have an open seat.”
Zeldin represents the state’s easternmost congressional district, stretching from some of Suffolk County’s suburbs east through the tony Hamptons to Montauk. He was one of more than 100 House Republicans who objected to the certification of President Joe Biden’s win, a topic that has continued to be a point of contention. He won reelection with 53 percent of the vote last year in a district that Trump narrowly carried.
He told POLITICO last month that he is confident in his ability to match Cuomo’s tens of millions of dollars in fundraising, something none of Cuomo’s past three Republican opponents have been able to do. And he’d focus on red-meat Republican policies like lowering taxes, public safety and job creation, he said.
“I’ll bring the kind of relentless, fighting spirit towards helping to save our state that Cuomo reserves for multi-million dollar self-congratulatory book deals, cover-ups, abuse & self-dealing,” Zeldin wrote on Twitter Thursday morning.
Despite the challenges he’d face in Democratic strongholds like New York City, Zeldin is a strong candidate with financial backing who could do very well — initially at least — on Long Island and with coveted voting blocks like Orthodox Jews, according to Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime New York City strategist whose clients have included Bill Clinton, Mike Bloomberg and Cuomo himself.
“Don’t count Zeldin out,” Sheinkopf said. “And Democrats believe that because Zeldin was with Trump they can get all over him and kill him. Don’t believe that either.”
The only other declared candidate — Carpinelli, the Lewis County sheriff who has refused to enforce a number of the state’s more progressive laws involving guns and immigrants — said last summer he was getting a head start on putting the state back “on the right tracks.”
The more moderate lane that can pull in like-minded voters from both parties appears open for the taking, especially after Rep. Tom Reed’s all-but-declared campaign was called off following reports about inappropriate sexual behavior toward a young lobbyist in 2017. Two previous Cuomo challengers, former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and current Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro have both said they are considering another run.
Andrew Giuliani has not officially declared a bid, has never been elected to public office and his biggest political role has been as a low-profile special assistant in the Trump White House. Like Zeldin, he would face a daunting set of circumstances as a Trump ally in a state where Trump remains deeply unpopular, losing to Biden by more than 20 percentage points last year.
For Cuomo, who often sees negative stories as politically motivated, it may not be such a bad thing to have specific opponents slinging mud at him, for it would allow him to fire back in kind.
But it’s likely that the primary won’t really take shape for several months. Others with the Executive Mansion in their sights — specifically Democrats — are waiting to see which way the tides will turn for Cuomo and what kind of fighting spirit he might muster, Sheinkopf said.
“It depends how afraid they are of Andrew Cuomo, both now and later,” he said. “That’s the question — has the tiger lost its teeth but not its claws?”
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