Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
State Conservative Party chairman Jerry Kassar.

At a Conservative Party fundraiser last month in New Rochelle, Westchester County, party officials were jubilant about Attorney General Letitia “Tish” James giving up her post as the state’s top legal eagle to run for governor. Her opponent will likely be Republican-Conservative presumptive nominee Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley, Suffolk County). Four other Republicans remain interested in running for governor, including Andrew Giuliani, Rob Astorino, Mike Carpinelli and Derek Gibson. None of the four Republicans will obtain the needed forms from the Conservatives to run on a political line they are not enrolled in, said State Conservative Party chairman Jerry Kassar.

Kassar and other Conservative and Republican lawmakers spoke to The Jewish Press about the upcoming race and the implications of running against James for governor.

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“Lee Zeldin is going to be running against a true lefty, a socialist progressive. In James it’s about as far left as you will see a candidate run for governor in this state,” Kassar said. “If you live in Brooklyn or Manhattan, the incumbency of Hochul is meaningless. James is a major minority elected official in a political party where minority voters are a high percentage of the total vote that comes out. I don’t think there is any chance at all that Hochul wins the primary.

Governor Kathy Hochul

“Hochul is a ship that lacks a helmsman because right now in the rough waters that she has entered she’s not sure if she needs to move to the right, to the left or just keep going straight ahead. The ship is just really floundering in this rough water that these downstate Democratic candidates are creating as Progressives in a race where 80 percent of the Democratic vote is from Orange County through Long Island. When you’re in a situation like that, Hochul needs to cater to downstate interests on many issues. That moves her farther to the left but she can’t really ‘out-left’ Tish James.”

From one end of the state to the other, state lawmakers believe people not enrolled in any party will make the difference in the statewide races. Senator George Borrello (R-Sunset Bay, Chautauqua County) told The Jewish Press that he believes Republicans and Conservatives have an uphill battle to win statewide.

“In a state with an overwhelming number of Democrats compared to Republicans, there is no easy candidate to beat,” said Borrello. “Lee Zeldin is up for the job. New Yorkers are fed up. The people who aren’t affiliated with any party are the ones who will ultimately decide this election. Kathy Hochul doesn’t appeal to the identity politics folks in New York City. That may make it easier for Lee Zeldin. In Tish James you have someone who just doesn’t have a lot of experience. The Democrats ultimately won’t be able to put together a platform that people will be able to get behind. With either one, there are weaknesses that can be exploited by Lee Zeldin.”

Assemblyman Kevin Byrne (R-Carmel, Putnam County) said the GOP and Conservatives will tie Hochul to Cuomo when imaging the rhetoric in the race, even though Hochul says she was not close with Cuomo.

“Hochul was Governor Cuomo’s top enabler,” Byrne said. “She was his top lieutenant. She was his lieutenant governor. She ran for office with him multiple times. She lauded him throughout the pandemic. I don’t think she’s as strong as people give her credit for. She is very vulnerable and I think she is a weakened governor. By wasting money on an expensive Democratic primary, I think she could be very vulnerable and Lee Zeldin could beat her. If it’s Tish James I think she could be vulnerable spending down money against Kathy Hochul in a primary, and she is even more liberal than Kathy Hochul, which is more dangerous but politically might make it easier for Lee Zeldin.”

Byrne also pointed to Biden’s low polling numbers as hurting New York’s Democratic statewide ticket in a similar fashion to the recent gubernatorial race in Virginia.

“The Democrats are doing our job for us right now,” Byrne said. “Joe Biden’s inflation [due to] failed Washington policies is doing the job for us. The voters are looking at what the Democrats promised, and they are under delivering in epic proportions. It is opening up a door very wide for us to walk through and show them a different way to govern that actually respects people’s individual liberties and freedoms.”

Tom Dadey, chairman of the Onondaga County Conservative Party and former chairman of the Onondaga County Republican Committee, said James is his preferred candidate to oppose Zeldin, who represents a diverse district in eastern Long Island.

“I would almost say that Tish James is the frontrunner for the Democratic Party because she has already been elected statewide. Hochul also ran statewide against Jumaane Williams in 2018. I would say Tish James is the frontrunner and a strong candidate for the democrats,” Dadey said. “At the end of the day, Tish James could be a better candidate for Lee Zeldin to run against but if there is going to be a divisive primary and it looks like there’s going to be at least a couple, then that’s [also] good for Lee Zeldin because whoever wins, somebody is not going to be happy and those folks may just stay home, which would be good for Lee Zeldin. His voters are going to want to be energized and Kathy Hochul could cut in to some of that base as an upstater from western New York.”

Zeldin still has to pick a running mate. Dadey, a longtime political prognosticator, has some ideas for Zeldin.

“As a running mate, Lee needs somebody that is qualified to do the job. Assuming Lee gets elected he’s not going to be there forever,” Dadey said. “Potential candidates to be Zeldin’s number two could be [former state Assemblywoman] Jane Corwin (R-Clarence, Erie County), Onondaga County Clerk Lisa Dell, a feisty retired police officer, or Onondaga County executive Ryan McMahon.”

If Corwin ends up being on the statewide ticket next year it could be a rematch, as Hochul narrowly defeated Corwin (by 5,500 votes) in her first bid for Congress in 2011 during a special election. Hochul was narrowly defeated (by 5,000 votes) the following year by Republican Chris Collins.

If New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams decides to formally announce his candidacy for governor, it would be another rematch for Hochul from within her own party. Hochul and Williams squared off against each other in 2018 in their bid for Lt. Governor. Hochul defeated Williams by 99,000 votes (53.4 percent to 46.6 percent of the vote).

Nominating conventions for statewide office will be held the end of February for the Democrats and the beginning of March for the GOP. Exact date and locations have not been announced.

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.