This essay was adapted from a recent speech given at a “Restore America” event in
Long Island, New York. 

Could a Republican Become New York’s Governor Again?

RealClear Politics recently reclassified New York’s gubernatorial race from “lean Dem” to “toss-up” in a dramatic change of fortune for Lee Zeldin as he looks to close the gap in the remaining weeks leading up to the November election. A recent poll by Trafalgar had Kathy Hochul up by only 2 percentage points, 45 percent to 43 percent over Lee Zeldin. 

In the attorney general’s race, the results were even better: Republican Michael Henry was up over Letitia James, 45 percent to 44 percent. Even more promising was a recent Siena Poll gauging several key swing districts: in New York’s 19th. congressional district, which covers New York’s Catskills and mid-Hudson Valley regions, Zeldin had a 46 percent to 45 percent lead over Hochul. That district is currently represented by Democrat Pat Ryan in Congress. Overall, Zeldin is outperforming Hochul with his base of Republicans, 89 percent to 5 percent, compared with Hochul’s lead among Democrats, which is only 82 percent to 13 percent. Obviously, however, Republicans statewide are at a significant disadvantage compared with Democrats in the category of total registered voters. 

Partly for this reason, Hochul has far outraised Zeldin, with $30 million in her campaign war chest compared to Zeldin’s paltry $10 million. In order for Zeldin to win the election, he will have to win by critical margins in both rural and suburban areas, while garnering at least 30 percent of the city vote. 

Working slightly in Zeldin’s favor, contrary to popular narratives and the examples of other blue states like California, New York state has been inching rightward over the past two presidential elections. In 2020, Donald Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to crack the 3 million vote threshold in New York state (he had 3.2 million votes) since Ronald Reagan won the state outright with 3.6 million votes in 1984. Alas, Trump still lost the state by almost 2 million votes; Biden’s 5.2 million votes was the most votes won by any candidate in state history. 

That is not to say all hope is lost, however. Trump’s 2020 total vote count, despite the rigged election and his lack of campaigning in the Empire State, was only 400,000 short of the 3.6 million votes Andrew Cuomo won in 2018, at the peak of his popularity and before his political scandals, when he defeated Marc Molinaro by a 24-point margin (59.62 percent to 36.21 percent.)

A Republican has not occupied the governor’s mansion since George Pataki won in 2002. Pataki, a three-term governor who did not run for reelection in 2006 (New York governors have no term limits), was the only New York Republican to have held the office in the past 50 years (although, granted, he did serve for 12 of those years—or nearly a quarter of the time). Pataki is also, not surprisingly, the only former Republican New York governor still living (the last one was Nelson Rockefeller, who died in 1979).

Because New Yorkers so infrequently elect Republican governors or senators, many people are struggling to figure out what kind of Republican, if any, can win in New York. Pataki and Rockefeller were pretty liberal overall. They were quintessential establishment types. Lee Zeldin would definitely be our most conservative Republican governor in living memory. But as Trump’s relative success in New York shows, being more conservative overall does not necessarily mean a candidate will perform worse in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 2-to-1. In fact, the opposite is true.

In many cases, a candidate’s positions are less important to voters than whether he or she has the requisite charisma, or can hold their attention, as Trump did. It is no coincidence that two of our greatest Republican presidents—Trump and Ronald Reagan—were the products of Hollywood and the entertainment industry. An ironclad law in American politics—the medium is the message—still holds true, and is perhaps truer today than ever before. 

Like Trump before him, Zeldin should not shy away from the spotlight or from generating controversy. On policies, he should be daring and creative about how he can utilize the bully pulpit to transform the culture of the state. People say politics is downstream from culture, but culture—as Trump has also demonstrated—is very much tied to politics. 

If he internalizes this critical lesson of modern politics, Zeldin could influence the culture of the state on the campaign trail. In office, he could even take a page from Andrew Cuomo’s playbook, who emblazoned the Cuomo name on bridges, tunnels, and freeways with impunity. Zeldin would be wise to propose something similar: why not rename the Tappan Zee Bridge, now called the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, after Donald Trump? Or maybe rechristen the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse on Foley Square in Lower Manhattan the Antonin Scalia or Rudolph Giuliani Courthouse? 

Better yet, retire Emma Lazarus’ dumb poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, which many liberals are convinced is a mandate for open borders forever, to a museum somewhere. After all, the Left had no qualms about retiring Teddy Roosevelt’s statue outside the Museum of Natural History in the aftermath of the George Floyd riots. What goes around . . .  

At the very least, talking about these kinds of things on the campaign trail would generate headlines, which is free press. Free press, whether negative or positive, is always good for a politician. The art of publicity, which is the popular version of the art of rhetoric, is perhaps the political art par excellence. Trump was and remains a master of this. The reason the Left is terrified Elon Musk will acquire Twitter is that they live in fear Trump will once again have access to the platform and be able to reshape the political narrative again.

To emphasize my point, recall the recent press conference between Joe Biden and Ron DeSantis. Biden’s complimenting of DeSantis for his “remarkable” leadership in the immediate wake of Hurricane Ian had a purpose. He wanted to elevate DeSantis because he believes (correctly, I think) that DeSantis would be an easier candidate to beat in 2024 than Trump. Biden knows that Trump will very soon officially announce his 2024 presidential campaign so he wants to sow doubt. This is taking the offense in politics, as Trump has done and as Zeldin should do in New York. 

DeSantis showed he understands the power of his office when he went after Disney for promoting a woke agenda. But DeSantis’ example should only be the starting point for all would-be Republican governors. Similarly,  Zeldin should not shy away from using state power to accomplish desirable policy goals. For example, Zeldin should not shy from going after major financial institutions like BlackRock and J.P. Morgan for promoting leftist policies, especially the pernicious environmental, social, and governance (ESG) movement.  

In these final weeks on the campaign trail, Zeldin might also take a page from Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s playbook. Landry recently ordered the Louisiana state treasury to divest itself of a $800 million position at BlackRock in response to the company’s alleged enthusiasm for woke environmental policies. BlackRock is run by ultrawoke CEO Larry Fink, who subscribes to the ESG and diversity agendas, which are tearing apart the social fabric and rendering great economic and social devastation upon everyday Americans. 

The BlackRock and Disney examples show that conservatives can no longer trust the private sector to operate free of insidious leftist ideologies. In fact, much of the woke movement is a top-down agenda driven by Fortune 500 companies. Republicans must restrategize and consider a more aggressive approach to public policy—one that does not shy away from using state power for conservative ends. 

Zeldin does not have to wait until he’s safely ensconced within the walls of the executive mansion to propose more aggressive policies that reflect the urgency of our political situation. I would bet that projecting strength, not weakness, in the face of tremendous adversity would only embolden his prospect of victory come November. The era of wishy-washy politics is over. It’s high time for every Republican to learn this lesson and put it into practice, or face well-deserved defeat. 

About Paul Ingrassia

Paul Ingrassia is a Claremont Publius and John Marshall Fellow and served in President Trump’s National Economic Council.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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