For months, the gubernatorial race between Democratic incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul and Republican challenger Rep. Lee Zeldin has sparked voracious media coverage and impassioned speculation among political enthusiasts. Today, that competitive contest comes to a head – as will the question of whether New York’s battleground races will play a decisive role in determining the political balance of the next Congress. Here are five things to look out for on Election Day.
Will Zeldin pull off the upset?
Probably not, but it’s possible. Logically, a state as blue as New York should never even draw close to turning red. At just shy of 50% of registered voters, Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in the state, which account for 22%. Independents who aren’t registered with a party make up 23%. The political power of New York City in particular had initially made any Republican victory especially unthinkable. Yet in recent weeks polling has illustrated Hochul’s margin over Zeldin drawing closer and closer. He’s made crime the central focus of his campaign and has seemed to make significant gains over previous statewide Republican candidates as a result, led in part by his popularity on his native Long Island, and with Orthodox Jewish voters.
While fellow Democrats have been quick to criticize Hochul for what seemed to be a lackluster campaign, some political consultants have speculated that the first woman to serve as New York governor, may be struggling with the same gender-related additional barriers that Hillary Clinton did while running for president in 2016. Hochul certainly still has the advantage in the race – especially as Zeldin’s poll numbers and energy have galvanized Hochul and Democrats alike. High-profile political stars like President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and former President Bill Clinton have all rallied in New York with Hochul, as have many elected officials from across the state. If Zeldin manages to pull an upset, it’ll all come down to Democrats not turning up.
New York City turnout
New York City is the linchpin in the gubernatorial election. To overcome any gains Zeldin hopes to make in conservative areas Upstate and in more moderate suburbs, Hochul needs to garner big turnout in the sweeping liberal city. As early voting kicked off, some supporters expressed concerns that turnout didn’t appear to be high enough to safely secure her victory, but that seemed to change as Hochul and supporters kicked their campaign into overdrive. The renewed push significantly increased the number of ballots cast in the city by the time the nine-day early voting period concluded on Sunday, Nov. 6. Preliminary tallies from the New York City Board of Elections show that about 432,634 people voted early, with the vast majority located in Brooklyn and Manhattan. That number translates to slightly less than half of the number of ballots cast during 2020’s presidential election in the same time period, though this is not unusual. Presidential elections always see higher turnout than midterms. Zeldin has said he believes he can win if he secures around 30 percent of New York City’s votes – if that proves true, he’ll likely need to count on independent voters and big turnout on conservative-leaning Staten Island to carry him through.
New York’s national impact
As Congressional Democrats have tried desperately to maintain their slim eight-vote majority amid projections of an imminent red wave, New York has emerged as an unlikely battleground. As many as 10 of the state’s 26 seats are currently on the table – the most of any other state except for California. This marks a significant pivot from what state Democrats believed would be the outcome a year ago when party leaders embarked on a rare redistricting process which they’d hoped would only increase their substantial political power. Those maps were ultimately thrown out by a state Supreme Court judge who ruled that they unconstitutionally favored Democrats. While the party’s initial plan had Democrats slated to potentially pick up three seats while also protecting existing ones, prognostics now have Democrats attempting to fight back competitive Republican challenges in five increasingly competitive districts. Nationally, it’s little secret that Republicans are favored to win back control of the House, though dozens of races are still seen as tossups.
How red does Long Island get?
Having long served as a competitive battleground, Long Island’s unique political landscape makes it one of the most watched areas in both the state and country. Entering Election Day, the island is a crucial swing area. Not only are Hochul and Zeldin locked in a fierce contest to edge out each other with voters, there are also nine seats in the state Senate currently up for grabs. Long Island’s seats in the House of Representatives had been held by two Democrats and two Republicans, but three of those four districts don’t have an incumbent. Zeldin’s open seat is one of them – and these races could very well tip the balance of a Congress scrambling to keep its slim Democratic majority. While Long Island has historically leaned white and Republican, its voting trends tend to shift depending on the year and who holds power throughout the various levels of government. Where votes will end up falling is complicated. Three of the four districts up for grabs in the House went towards Biden in 2020, with New York’s 2nd Congressional District in Suffolk County the lone exception. While redistricting gave Democrats more of an advantage in the House districts compared to the 2020 elections, Republicans performed very well during local elections last year and experts say that the party still has political momentum.
Assuming the governor’s race is close – and most everyone expects it to be – it could have an effect on the other statewide races on the ballot, including the proposal for an Environmental Bond Act. No other statewide candidate has earned the attention Zeldin has, or had as much outside money spent on their behalf – Republican comptroller candidate Paul Rodriguez has reported spending $11. So their success will be heavily reliant on voters who choose Zeldin just deciding to roll with the whole, anti-incumbent slate. Experts expect a fair amount of ticket splitting, so they’re all longshots, but polling for Attorney General Letitia James, for one example, hasn’t shown the easy rout than many observers would have expected.
It’s a similar situation for the statewide ballot proposal, and the three racial justice ballot proposals in New York City. Unlike the ballot proposals last year, nobody is leading a campaign to vote them down, and even conservative stalwarts like the Empire Center can’t find too much fault in the bond act. They’ll probably all pass – but if there’s enough anti-establishment sentiment driven by Zeldin’s aggressive campaign, down-ballot races could be affected. Democratic campaigns for Congressional and state Legislative candidates have certainly been grumbling that the governor hasn’t done enough to energize voters, and even those in normally safe districts are biting their fingernails.
With reporting by Jeff Coltin