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How Trump and Biden are shaping New York's governor race

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Hochul: Max Schulte, WXXI News
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Zeldin: J.D. Allen, WSHU News
Gov. Kathy Hochul, left, and Rep. Lee Zeldin.

The two candidates for governor in New York, Democrat Kathy Hochul and Republican Lee Zeldin, have close associations with the current and former presidents of their parties, Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Both candidates have drawn on their relationships with Biden and Trump to benefit themselves—and criticize each other.

During the one and only debate of the 2022 New York governor’s race, held by Spectrum News, Hochul was given the opportunity to ask Zeldin a question. She homed in on Zeldin’s association with former President Donald Trump.

“Is Donald Trump a great president?” Hochul asked Zeldin. “Yes or no?”

Zeldin, who held a fundraiser with Trump in July and who has been endorsed by the former president, hesitated. He praised Trump for some policies, including securing the southern border and handling the pandemic. But he did not directly answer the question.

“I will take that as a resounding yes,” Hochul finally said. “And the voters of New York do not agree with you.”

Zeldin was an early supporter of Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

The July fundraiser with Trump gained Zeldin a significant amount of donations that helped him become competitive with Hochul in television ads.

And on Jan. 6, 2021, Zeldin sided with other Trump supporters in Congress and voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election. He said his objections were narrowly focused on potential voter irregularities in two states, allegations later shown to be false.

While Trump is popular with some New Yorkers, he’s disliked by the majority of voters in the state, including many independent voters who Zeldin would need to win the governor’s seat.

As a result, Zeldin downplayed the endorsement.

“It shouldn’t have been news,” Zeldin said on Oct. 14. “He’s supported me before this weekend.”

Hochul, in ads, uses Zeldin’s ties to Trump to portray him negatively to voters.

One ad features footage of Trump at an April 2022 event at Mar-a-Lago saying, “Lee fought for me very, very hard.” Zeldin is seen standing nearby.

Zeldin’s voice is also featured.

“President Trump, I stand with him, I support him,” Zeldin says in the ad.

“Zeldin voted with Trump too, nearly 90% of the time,” the narrator continues.

The ad also shows Trump giving Zeldin a friendly tap on the shoulder, and a photo of the two men, smiling.

Zeldin has said most New Yorkers no longer care about a past president. He said they’re focused on the future and how New York will deal with rising crime and a faltering economy.

“As I travel around the state … at no point am I coming across people who say, ‘What will decide my vote for governor is based off of who the last president was,’” Zeldin said. “It doesn’t happen.”

Hochul, meanwhile, has highlighted her close relationship with President Joe Biden. During the debate, she mentioned the president twice, saying she was consulting him on how to handle New York’s immigration crisis caused partially by Republican governors from other states flying or busing immigrants to New York. Hochul also said she’ll support Biden for re-election.

“He has delivered for the people of this country in ways that we still don’t know the benefits,” she said.

Hochul cited the Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure package as examples.

On Thursday, Hochul met Biden in Syracuse, where he toured the site where Micron Technology plans to build a microchip processing plant that is projected to lead to as many as 50,000 direct and support jobs.

“President Joe Biden. I want to thank him for coming to town, not for a law school reunion, but a reunion of upstate with the glorious past of its manufacturing legacy,” Hochul said. “We've waited our lives for this … to have that sense of hope again.”

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Mike Groll
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Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
President Joe Biden speaks in Syracuse on Oct. 27, 2022, as Gov. Kathy Hochul looks on,

Biden returned the favor.

“You’ve been a great partner to me and a great leader for the state,” said Biden, who credited Hochul for landing the Micron deal. “You signed a law to make New York even more welcoming.”

Biden is more popular than Trump in New York. He has an overall 53% approval rating, according to the latest Siena College poll, with 83% of Democrats saying they like the job that he is doing in office. He is underwater with independent voters, though with 47% approving and 51% disapproving of his performance.

Before Biden arrived, Zeldin held an event in Syracuse, where he characterized the presidential visit as an act of political desperation.

“Twelve days out from the election, this is a political visit,” Zeldin said.

And he said Hochul’s close associations with the president won’t help her on Election Day.

“If she wants to campaign with Joe Biden every day, between now and Nov. 8, I don’t care,” said Zeldin, who added he’s not running against Biden, but against Hochul.

“Kathy Hochul hasn’t yet realized that she’s running against Lee Zeldin,” the congressman said. “She thinks that she’s running against somebody else.”

It’s a little over a week until Election Day, with early voting beginning Saturday.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.