While many Republican candidates began this election season by attacking Democrats over inflation, Lee Zeldin of New York had a different focus: crime.
The Republican governor candidate has spent much of the year decrying a string of shootings and other violent crimes, including a series of unprovoked attacks on New York City subways. He lamented stories of stabbings, strangers pushing people onto train tracks, and a bizarre incident near Times Square in which several women in neon green leotards attacked and robbed two women on a train.
In a personal twist, two teenagers were injured earlier this month in a drive-by shooting outside his home.
Republicans across the country are wrapping up their campaigns ahead of the Nov. 8 election with a message that closely mirrors what Zeldin has argued for much of the year. In recent debates from Georgia to Michigan and Wisconsin, Republican candidates have slammed Democrats for being unconcerned about crime. And there are signs that the crime message is resonating in New York, where the race between Zeldin, a four-term U.S. congressman, and Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul is tightening in the final stretch.
Hochul is still considered the race’s favorite. In New York, a Republican has not been elected governor since 2002, when Gov. George Pataki was re-elected in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Since 2006, the Democrat has won every governor’s race in the state by a wide margin. Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-1 margin, giving Hochul a clear advantage even as her party faces national challenges.
Hochul has held a significant lead over Zeldin in Siena College polling since July, including as recently as mid-October. However, other recent polls indicate that Hochul has only a slight lead.
Even if Hochul wins, a poor showing at the top of the ticket could have ramifications for other Democrats on the ballot, particularly those in tighter races in upstate and western New York. To keep U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney’s Hudson Valley district or flip the Syracuse-area seat being vacated by Republican John Katko, the party will need strong turnout.
Zeldin’s strategy has at times mirrored that of New York Mayor Eric Adams, a moderate who won a crowded Democratic primary last year by focusing on crime rates and made a point of holding news conferences at crime scenes both on the campaign trail and as mayor.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, rates of violent crime and homicide have risen significantly across the United States, surpassing historic lows in some areas. While experts have pointed to a variety of potential causes, including global upheaval caused by the pandemic, Republicans have attempted to pin blame on criminal justice reforms implemented in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death by police.
The truth is frequently more nuanced. According to New York state data, rates of murder, rape, robbery, and assault have all increased in New York since the pandemic, and all of those crimes except robbery have increased from 2012 to 2021.
According to New York Police Department data, murder rates in New York City are lower than they were two years ago, but rape, robbery, assault, and burglary are all on the rise. Crimes on the city’s public transportation system are up more than 40% from this time last year. However, subway ridership has increased since last year, and the 1,800 crime complaints filed on the subway system so far in 2022 represent a tiny fraction of the traffic on a system that sees about 3.5 million riders per day.
Hochul dismissed the notion that she hadn’t been discussing crime during an unrelated news conference on Monday.
Zeldin still faces numerous challenges, perhaps the most significant of which is his alliance with Trump, who is unpopular in the blue state. After Trump falsely claimed widespread election fraud in the 2020 presidential election, Zeldin voted against certifying Joe Biden’s victory as a member of the United States House.
Zeldin’s ties to Trump became even more awkward this month when Trump, on the day he endorsed Zeldin, said American Jews need to “get their act together” and “appreciate” Israel “before it is too late.” Jews constitute an important constituency in New York, and Zeldin is Jewish, but he has not addressed Trump’s comment.